Saturday, January 26, 2008

They Were Seriously Woman

by Nancy Northcott

As I started to think of blog topics, I gravitated toward English history. I've loved it since I saw a (highly fictionalized, I now realize) story called "When Knighthood Was in Flower" on The Wonderful World of Disney many years ago. There are a lot of choices, and a lot of attractive time periods. I finally settled, though, on strong women in history, not just English history. In romance, we like to think of "Happily Ever After," or the "HEA" ending. Most of these women didn't ever get that, but they more than fit the image in Helen Reddy's hit, "I Am Woman."

We could start with the Amazons. Loving Greek mythology led me to Wonder Woman comic books and thence to the warrior women of ancient Greece. They were my first clue that women could, as the saying goes, "kick butt and take names." An episode of the PBS program Secrets of the Dead used DNA sampling to trace the Amazons' descendants to the Mongolian steppes. Way cool, what they can do these days, huh? I just wish we knew more about the Amazons' culture.

We do know a little more about their later, British counterpart, Boadicea (or Boudicca), who very nearly kicked the mighty Roman Empire out of Britain. A gorgeous statue honoring her stands on the City side of Westminster Bridge in London. A television movie about her, starring the fabulous Alex Kingston, aired a while back. I've heard debates about the historical accuracy, but it made for interesting TV.

After Boadicea came that greatest of British Tough Babes, Elizabeth I, Glorianna herself. As a young woman, she was savvy enough to walk the fine line of not discouraging Thomas Wyatt's plot to supplant Queen Mary, yet managed not to supply anything that could be used as evidence to send her to the block, something Mary very much seemed to want at times. If I could, I'd ask her how she knew just where that deadly line lay.

Elizabeth managed to hold the throne, keep a council of male advisors from forgetting who actually ruled, and marshall sufficient forces to defeat (with a little help from the weather), the mighty Armada of Spain. At the time, the King of Spain was her former brother-in-law, Phillip II. She sent the first English colony into the New World (right here in North Carolina) and kept religious controversy from tearing her realm apart. I see Queens Anne and Victoria and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as all being cut from Elizabeth I's cloth. Unfortunately, Elizabeth had to choose between her throne and her heart. Which was probably a good thing. I mean--can you see Essex as King of England? Makes me shudder!

If we cross the Atlantic, there's Pocahontas, who helped build a bridge between the Powhatans and the strange people who came from across the ocean. She married an Englishman and went with him to England, only to die there, but she had the courage to step outside her world and explore something completely different. A couple of centuries later, another Native American woman, Sacagawea, left her world to lead Lewis and Clark across the continent. I'd love to ask them why they did it, and to ask the rest of the women in this post how they persevered to accomplish what they did.

One of my greatest childhood heroes was Helen Keller, who had to overcome so many disadvantages and proved that a person could be great without sight or hearing. Anne Sullivan rightly deserves to be called "The Miracle Worker" because her perseverance unlocked Helen's doors, but Helen walked through those doors and became a symbol of hope for so many people.

Without Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Romance Bandits might not be able to vote yet. Rosa Parks's courage became a beacon for people across the nation, and Bessie Coleman proved African American women could take to the sky. Coleman was the first African American, male or female, to earn a pilot's license. She died practicing for a stunt show in the 1920s.

All these women roared, each in her own way and some louder than others. Who are the women in history you most admire? If you could ask them one question, what would it be?


Jennifer Y. said...


Jennifer Y. said...

What a cool post! I have always been fascinated by women in history. My main interest seems to be the women of the 1800s-1900s in the US...the female outlaws, pioneers, and others who helped shaped the frontier. I used to love stories of Annie Oakley, Calamity Jayne, Belle Starr, and more. Not to mention the other women from that era.

Jennifer Y. said...

And my question would did you do it? I am especially curious about those women, many whose names are unknown, who gave up everything back east to go west with their families on wagon trains and whatnot.

Aunty Cindy said...

WTG Jennifer!
Hope the GR has fun playing with all his little plush buddies at your place!

Interesting topic Nancy. Elizabeth I is one of my fave historical figures. I'd love to sit down with her and have a real girl-to-girl talk about that "Virgin Queen" moniker! :-)


Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Jennifer, congratulations! He's sick of the Southern Hemisphere. And he's worried about his future with all the Australia Day barbecues going on around him, so I think it's a good thing you snatched him today!

Nancy, fantastic post. I too am a history geek. Find it fascinating - and I love using real life stories to inspire my books. I've had a long-time admiration for Elizabeth I - and there's the cruel contrast of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots who basically did everything wrong. I'd like to ask Elizabeth if she was ever in love (my bet is on Leicester, not Essex).

Amy Andrews said...

Emmeline Pankhurst for me. And of course, Florence Nightingale.

You know, I read Syndey Poitier's memoir - Measure of a Man - not long ago where he talked about how they used to live on this little island and his mum broke up rocks into gravel, all day every day for a pittance to feed her kids and keep her family together. Can you imagine how mind numbing that must have been? What strength of character she must have had to not go completely insane? I admire a lot of the women whose names we will never know but who each, in their own way, did their thing to make it a better world for others.

Girl power!

Christine Wells said...

Congrats, Jennifer! Treat our wuvly wooster well, won't you?

Wonderful post, Nancy. I love reading about brilliant women, too. You mentioned my favourite, Elizabeth I. I've been fascinated with her for many years. And those wonderful women who worked with the French resistance during the war leave me awestruck, too.

I don't know if anyone saw it, but on Maria's blog on RNTV was a brilliant speech Joss Whedon gave about women and equality. I have so much respect for that man.

jo robertson said...

Very informative post, Nancy. Great job and however did Jennifer Y. capture the GR. It's not even midnight on the west coast.

Coincidentally, my current WIP deals with a woman who's a staunch support of women's suffrage. I have such great admiration for those early suffragettes and the later women who came into the work force during the world wars.

Anna Campbell said...

Amy, I knew you'd go for those two! Battleax... Um, VERY strong women, both of them!

Tawny said...

Ooooh, YAY Jennifer! NICE job nabbing the bird :-)

Nancy, what a fabulous post. I'm a huge fan of Cleopatra *g* I read numerous books about her as a kid, all of my history reports veered in her direction. I can't come up with a question to ask, mostly becuase I get the impression that she's a woman who didn't share secrets.

p226 said...

Annie Oakley, definitely.
Marie Curie.
Amelia Earhart
Frida Kahlo
Pancho Barnes. There's an obscure one for you. One of the best quotes ever: "Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse." She was a riot.

Amy Andrews said...

LOL Foanna - wash your mouth out. I think I was a sufragette in a past life.

I did an oral assignment in grade 12 english on women's rights. My brilliant conclusion involved me pulling out a bra and setting it alight.
My english teacher, a very dapper, proper (but brilliant)gent nearly had a heart attack. The fire almost got out of control and the whole classroom stank of bruning noxious substances.
But man, got me an A+ ;-)
Many thanks to all those who burned their bras for me.

Anna Campbell said...

AA, how cool on the bra thing! Actually I can picture you marching along with Emmeline or telling some poor Crimean colonel off with Florence.

Caren Crane said...

Jennifer, congrats on nabbing the GR!

Amy, honey, we MUST meet! Any girl who burns a bra in the name of an English class report is someone I need to know. *g*

Nancy, as a young girl, I read all these biographies of American women that were written for kids. More like story books than history. My favorites were Annie Oakley, Louisa May Alcott and Susan B. Anthony. I grew up in a time when (in my house, anyway) girls were told they could be anything they wanted to be. I believed it! Reading about women who became what they wanted to be when it wasn't so easy inspired me.

I would love to ask Susan B. Anthony (or Elizabeth Cady Stanton) what made her believe she could make a difference in the world. Or did she simply think she had to do what was right, even if it seemed she might not make a difference at all?

I think, these days, people expect such immediate results, many are discouraged from planting their mustard seeds. Yet what a world of difference small efforts can make!

Suzanne Welsh said...

Thanks for bringing our real life heroines to the forefront! And I love Kate Blanchett's portral of Elizabeth in Elizabeth .

A few heroines that mean a lot to me are Florence Nightingale. Talk about courage! To leave the life of priveledge in England and travel to the Crimean and into the deplorable conditions of a battlefield hospital! AND set the masculine world of the military and medicine on its collective ears!!

Clara Barton, did the same thing in America during the Civil War. Yes, there's a nursing theme here, but I've always loved the history how a very largely female profession came out of the home's sick room and into the public world.

How about Madame Cury? A scientist who helped revolutionize modern medicine?

Joan said...

Nancy, great post!

I loved Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Elizabeth I. Gave me a whole, new respectful image of Elizabeth's strength and abilities and yes, feminine side.

Boudcia? Who wouldn't love someone fierce enough to stand up to a conquerer?

Florence and Clara? Well, being a nurse like Suz, you can't help but admire them. (Wonder how THEY would handle staffing grids?)

But their stories have often been glorified. Like they just "magically" took care of these soldiers.

The challenges they faced! They cleaned and scrubbed and passed some Crimean bedpans but they also developed acadamia and instilled critical thinking into the whole world of caring for the ill and injured. They knew you couldn't just give sponge baths and pass pills. It was imperative that you, as a nurse, know about the diseases and conditions that you become a partner with the physician. THAT is their legacy.

Wish I could ask them about staffing grids ;-0

And Eleanor Roosevelt. I saw a mini series years ago with Jane (can't remember her name). This first lady was smart, savvy and courageous. After Franklin died (and imagine that courage finding out he died with a mistress!) she went on to make a difference.

Yup, Beth, Flo and Ellie....great examples!

doglady said...

Kudos on the GR, Jennifer. Happy Australia Day to all the ladies in Oz and yes, I think a strategic retreat to this side of the world was probably best with all that barbequing going on!

Women in history have always fascinated me. Bodicia was one tough chick. I have a terrific rescued dog named after her and like her namesake she is a fierce thing!

I would also like to know more about Elizabeth's love life and who exactly she gave up to be the queen she needed to be. She was definitely her father's daughter - smart, sly, tough and born to rule.

Helen Keller is definitely one of my heroes, especially as she was born and raised not far from where I live. Quiet courage and dignity and a great sense of humor when that is the last thing you would expect her to have. A definite 'steel magnolia.'

Harper Lee - who had the courage to write the novel that NEEDED to be written at a time when her family and fellow Southerners might not have wanted to hear it. And she was a loyal friend to Truman Capote from childhood - another not so popular stand at the time.

Marion Anderson - the first African American to sing at the White House and a number of other rather important venues. Her voice got her foot in the door, but her love for her art got her on that stage.

I like women who listen politely while people tell them they can't do something and then go right out there and do it!

Caren Crane said...

Doglady, your comment reminded me of Raven Wilkinson, who danced in the 1950s with Denham's Ballet Russe. Because she was African-American, Wilkinson was forced out of ballet when racial tensions escalated in the late 50s and early 60s. She danced for a long while with a company in Holland, then came back to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. I believe she still does mime and character roles for them.

Definitely a woman who was told what she could not do and did it anyway. What a wonderful role model of persistence!

Kirsten said...

The best and the most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart-- Helen Keller.

Nancy, I happen to be wearing a pendant right now with this quote on it! Helen is a huge inspiration for me.

I am also an Elizabeth fan. And then there are those crazy female pirates--Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of course, and Grace O'Malley. I'd be interested to see how messed up they really were. ;-)

And I'm totally with Jennifer Y--the women who went west were incredibly brave and adventurous. I did a little thesis project on them back in graduate school. The conventional wisdom was always that they were dragged by their husbands out there, but the truth is that they were just as crazy and adventurous as the men!

Helen said...

Congrats jennifer on the GR

Nancy what a wonderful post there have been so many strong wonderful women in the world that have made such a difference to the way we live I bow down to them for the perserverence and strength they had to make things happen.
To all the women that have been mentioned I would just like to say thank you we are very proud of what you have done.
Have Fun

Nancy said...

Jennifer Y., congratulations on the rooster! You have to be quick to snag him.

You and Kirsten make a good point about the women who climbed into covered wagons and set out into strange country, leaving all they knew far behind. I have a book called Pioneer Women, by Joanna L. Stratton, that deals with this subject, but I haven't actually read it. Thought I might like to someday, which is how our house came to be overstuffed with books *sigh*.

Belle Starr and Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane and their colleagues are probably some of the earliest openly armed women in American history, though I think Annie mostly went armed in the Wild West Show or when hunting for food. There's an early film short, shot by Edison in his black box theater, of Annie Oakley performing trick shots. She isn't as impressive as she probably was for real because the box is so small and the range, correspondingly short. It's cool to see her in action, though.

p226 and Suz, I also admire Madame Curie. One of her daughters died just last year. The obit in the NY Times quoted her as saying she didn't mind writing about her famous relatives instead of being one of the family stars. You two and Christie might be interested to know that one of those siblings, a sister, if I remember correctly, also fought with the French resistance.

Keira Soleore said...

If I were a tabloid reporter time0traveled back to the early 1800s, I'd travel to Chawton and nosily ask Jane Austen about her love life.

Amy: I loved, loved, loved Sidney Poitier's memoir. He is an amazing man! If I were to meet him, I'd simply say, "Thank you." Thank you for the movies he's made, for the inspiration he's provided, for the person he is.

Amy: Go girl, you! High drama, and an exit that would be hard to top.

Other women: Hildegaard von Bingen, Jean d'Arc, Queen on Jhansi, Golda Meier, many more.

Nancy said...

p226, I also admire Earhart. I'm not familiar with Pancho Barnes (and couldn't use that quote in my classes), but she sounds intriguing. I'll have to do some checking about her.

Tawny, I saw a program recently (might have been National Georgraphic TV or The History Channel) saying Cleopatra got a bum rap, that she was actually an astute ruler trying to salvage the best deal she could for her people under Joan's Romans.

Keira, I also admire Joan of Arc. She had an actual sword and ordered guys around. When I discovered her, via a Classics Illustrated Comic book, I landed smack in her corner forever! The Jane Austen idea sounds like fun. If only--!

Caren, I also read oodles of those biographies, most of them written by Augusta Stevenson (who I now wonder about--was she real or a house name). Although the ones I read leaned heavily on docudrama, they still provided inspiration.

You and doglady bring up interesting topics. I forget where Marian Anderson had to sing on the steps because they wouldn't let her sing inside (Carnegie Hall?), but I remember the picture. Raven Wilkinson reminds me of Josephine Baker, who also left the country because she had more favorable career prospects in France.

Doglady, Harper Lee wrote my very favorite ever book, which became my very favorite ever movie. I haven't read that biography of her that came out a year or two ago, but it's on my to-read list. If you could only ever write one book, and it was that book, still in print 40+years later, maybe that would be enough.

Nancy said...

Amy, love the bra stunt! I wish I'd had that kind of nerve in school. I hadn't read Poitier's memoir, but his mother sounds amazing.

Jo, good luck with that suffragette wip!

Anna C., Joan, AC, Kirsten and doglady, I also suspect Leicester was Elizabeth's one great love. I've always thought Essex traded shamefully on that. Helen Mirren was wonderful as Elizabeth in the HBO min-series last year (and Hugh Dancy, also a veteran of the Clive Owen King Arthur movie) was seriously cute as Essex. Mirren was also fabulous as Inspector Tennison, but that's a discussion for another blog day. I agree about Cate Blanchett, too. Of course, I've never seen her be bad in anything. Her Galadriel was just superb, IMHO.

Suz and Joan, thanks for the reminders of Nightingale and Barton and for the reality check about how much actual, you know, icky work was involved in what they did. I do think we seem to forget that. The Lady With the Lamp is so much more of a romantic image for Nightingale than the Lady With the Bedpan.

p226 said...

I'll have to do some checking about her

Pancho ran a bar on Edwards AFB. It was the watering hole and general trouble-spot and playground for all the test pilots and early astronauts. Pancho was one of Chuck Yeager's best friends. And if you know anything about Yeager, you know he surrounded himself with amazing people. Pancho was no exception. If they would've let her, she could have easily done any of the test flying that was going on at that time. Yeager called her one of the best pilots he'd ever known, which is an incredibly heavy statement. Yeager did not make such proclamations lightly.

Besides being an amazing and daring pilot, she was probably one of the wildest women of the 20th century. She was as wild and crazy as any of those test pilots, and just as crude. She drank beer for beer and shot for shot with them, and was out the next day doing amazing feats in aircraft, just as they were.

Her bar provided a place for those guys to unwind and cut loose, and she let them tear loose in it.

Nancy said...

Doglady wrote: "I like women who listen politely while people tell them they can't do something and then go right out there and do it!"

A classmate of mine had that experience in her medical residency. A curmudgeonly doctor who made plain his disdain for women entering the profession told her he didn't think she had what it took. She has now been in emergency rooms, as a doctor, for a couple of decades. So that! (snap of fingers) for the old coot!

Nancy said...

p226, thanks for the info on Pancho! Definitely a roaring woman.

Trish Milburn said...

Jennifer, I totally agree about women on the frontier, even some of the non-famous women who homesteaded on their own. Can you imagine how incredibly difficult and lonely that was?

Christine, I totally agree with you about Joss Whedon. He's someone I'd absolutely love to meet. I think his creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, laid the groundwork for a lot of the butt-kicking heroines I love in movies, TV and novels. It showed that a girl could kick butt and take names and still be feminine too. She didn't have to look and act like a guy.

Suz, I was just thinking I loved Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth portrayal. I haven't seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but she's been nominated for an Oscar for that role.

Kirsten, I went to a pirate exhibit at an aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a couple of years ago. It had lots of good material, including stuff about the female pirates.

Others I think it would be interesting to talk to would be the women who dressed as men in order to be able to fight during the Civil War and the ones who were spies during the same period. Talk about doing something women didn't do.

Caren Crane said...

Kirsten, I love the lady pirates! Are you ever going to resurrect the pirate book?!

Caren Crane said...

Oh, Trish, there was a Civil War re-enactor in our local chapter for a couple of years who re-enacted those women. She had the looks and physique for it, too. She was a treasure trove of information about women who masqueraded as men to serve in the Civil War. I cannot imagine feeling that compelled to serve. What a risky, dangerous thing for a young woman to do! My hat's off to them.

Anna Sugden said...

Great post, Nancy!

There are so many women in history I admire - the women who fought for the vote, who paved the way for the rest of us in business, the military and in other walks of life, the pioneer women, the women who fought for equality, the women who made difficult choices because of their beliefs and who fought and sacrificed to stand up for those beliefs.

And the generations of women who did their damnedst to give us romance novels!

BTW - I was one of the women who fought to succeed in business despite the prejudice against women.

Nancy said...

Trish and Caren, I'd forgotten about the women who dressed as men so they could fight. I wish I'd seen that Civli War re-enactor. I remember Rose O'Neill Greenhow, a Washington socialite and spy (for the Confederacy, I think).

VA, I'm glad you hung in there.

Joan, I think that mini-series with Eleanor Roosevelt might have starred Jane Alexander.

Yay for female pirates, Kirsten and Caren and Trish! I read some book years and years ago featuring a female pirate. (it had a red cover, informartion that's so helpful in recalling the title!) I wonder if the new and expanding historical novel with SRE market would have room for a woman pirate?

Christie Kelley said...

What a great post, Nancy.

When I was writing my first book (that shall never see the light of day), I wrote about a woman doctor in the mid 1800s. It was fascinating to read about what these women went through just to get their training.

Maybe someday I'll rewrite that book...

Caren Crane said...

Oh, Christie, like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? I loved that show! Even though now, every time I think of it or hear it I think of "Talladega Nights". If you didn't see it, Ricky Bobby and his wife named their sons Walker and Texas Ranger. They are arguing with the grandfather of the boys and the wife tells him if they wanted sissies they would have named them Dr. Quinn and Medicine Woman. It was wrong, but SO FUNNY!

Oh, and I also loved it that the jaguar in the movie was named Karen (though with a "K", I'm pleased to note *eg*).

Caren Crane said...

Nancy, I rarely remember titles. But often I can give you a really good, "Yeah, it was the one with the blue cover and the purple flowers tied with lace..." Not very helpful when trying to search for the title!

Joan said...

I loved Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman....but, er because of Sully, Hot Frontier Guy.


Jennifer Y. said...

Dr. Quinn was a fave of mine as reason being the same as Joan's...LOL