historywomen

WOMEN OF HISTORY | VALERIA MESSALINA (c. 17/20 – 48) (Monica Bellucci)

A woman whose name has become synonymous with manipulative sexual power, Messalina was a Roman Empress with powerful connections: third wife of the Emperor Claudius, cousin of the Emperor Nero, second cousin of the Emperor Caligula, and great-grandniece of the Emperor Augustus.

As empress she became the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire, with her husband having statues erected across public places for her and her birthday becoming an officially celebrated event.

The many ancient Roman sources mentioning her all paint Messalina as avaricious, shameless, and erratic, a cruel sex-crazed tyrant. (Unsurprising, as madness ran strong in her family, Emperor Caligula being a fine example of that.) Under an alias she was the owner of a brothel and was also said to have disguised herself so she too could work as a prostitute, choosing to play the role of proseda (a common brothel prostitute) as opposed to a famosa (courtesan). (Being the Empress of Rome this was clearly a decision based on sexual desire and fetish rather than any sort of monetary need.) The famous (and probably not quite truthful) story by Pliny goes that she once challenged a famous prostitute to an all night sex competition and won.

As the Claudius was getting older, Messalina was very aware that her status would remain only as long as he was emperor, and so she began eliminating people who could have been threats to herself and her children. She was able to use her husband’s devotion to get him to order executions and exiles of those she deemed dangerous. This, coupled with the gossip spreading all around Rome, was making Messalina extremely unpopular.

She began an affair with Senator Gaius Silius, eventually forcing him to divorce his wife to continue it. Increasingly paranoid by the day, Messalina decided that to protect her family she had to have Caligula killed and Silius made emperor instead. When Claudius discovered the plot on his life he ordered the death of both Messalina and Silius. When the day came, Messalina was offered the chance to kill herself but was too afraid to do it, and so she was decapitated instead.

Claudius was at a feast when his wife’s death was announced. He made no reaction but simply asked for more wine. Only Messalina’s children mourned her, and the Senate ordered her name removed from all public places.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | THESSALONIKE OF MACEDON, Θεσσαλονίκη (352 or 345 – 295 BC) (Amber Sainsbury)

Thessalonike was a Macedonian princess, daughter of king Philip II and half-sister of Alexander the Great. When her mother (the concubine Nicesipolis) died not long after she was born, Thessalonike was taken to be raised by her stepmother, Olympias, who loved the girl and even taught her the ways of Dionysus.

When Cassander took the throne after Alexander’s death, Thessalonike - then in her early twenties - took refuge with Olympias. Upon Olympias’ excecution, Cassander made Thessalonike his wife and queen, using her to legitimise his own rule. Despite the rocky beginning, he was said to have treated her with great respect and together they had three sons: Philip, Antipater, and Alexander.

After Cassander’s death in 297 BC, Thessalonike continued to have a strong influence over her sons. Philip succeeded his father to the throne and Antipater was next in line, but Thessalonike demanded that the rulership be shared instead between Philip and Alexander. Jealous of the favour being shown to his younger brother, Antipater has his mother put to death.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | HAI BA TRUNG: TRUNG TRAC and TRUNG NHI (c. 12 - AD 43) (Viet Trinh and Thuy Dung)

Two of the most popular heroines in Vietnamese history, the Trung sisters led a national uprising, the first resistance movement against the occupying Chinese after their 247 years of domination.

Trac and Nhi were daughters of a powerful lord, and grew up well trained in not only martial arts but the art of warfare itself. Trac was the elder of the sisters, noted as being brave and fearless, and it was she who gathered the Vietnamese lords to rebel. (Legends speak of her committing acts of bravery to gain their confidence, such as killing a man-eating tiger and using the skin to write a proclamation urging them to follow her.)

The sisters gathered an army of 80,000 and from them they chose thirty-six women - including their mother - who they then trained to be generals. It was these women who led the massive army that would manage to take over 65 cities at Trac’s command. After this Trac declared herself queen, going by the title of ‘She-king Trung’. She established a court of her own, abolishing tribute taxes and working to restore a simpler form of government for the people.

The Trung sisters continued to be involved in battles with the Chinese government in Vietman. In their final battle the sisters were out-armed and defeated, and rather than lose their honour or fall into the hands of the Chinese, they committed suicide by drowning themselves.

In time both sisters became figures of legend and across Vietnam they remain heroes and national symbols of resistance and freedom. They have many temples dedicated to them as well as an annual holiday to commemorate their deaths, and a number of streets and districts named for them.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ANNE BONNY (b. 8 March 1697-1700) (Erin Cummings)

One of the most famous female pirates, Irish-born Anne married a poor sailor and sometimes-pirate by the name of James Bonny and was disowned by her father for it. With her new husband she moved to the Bahamas and began to spend time with the pirates in local taverns. It was here she met Calico Jack, captain of the pirate ship Revenge, and became his lover - and eventually his wife - before joining him on his ship. Anne was an active participant in piracy, taking part in combat alongside the craw and the accounts speak of her as being a competent fighter, respected by the crew, and having a fiery temper. (The latter being no new development: at thirteen she’d stabbed a servant girl with a table knife.) All the while, Anne made no attempt to hide her gender.

Anne’s capture came when the Revenge was boarded by pirate hunters. Most of the crew gave little resistance but Anne, her fellow female pirate Mary Read, and an unknown man fought violently until the very end before being taken. She was convicted to be hanged by begged for mercy on account of being pregnant.

Her last words to the imprisoned Calico Jack were that she was “sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang’d like a Dog.”

Although there are plenty of theories, there is no firm historical evidence of what happened to Anne, whether she was released or executed in the end. There is suggestion that her father may have arranged for her release, and after that she lived a quiet life, but she may have just taken up piracy again under a different name.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | PAMPHILE OF EPIDAURUS, Παμφίλη (1st Century) (Joy Bryant)

A Greek historian of Egyptian descent, Pamphile’s principal work was The Historical Commentaries, a history of Greece composed of thirty-three books. It was not arranged according to subjects or an overarching plan, but rather set down in a more casual way as it came to notice of Pamphile. She believed that this variety would give the reader more pleasure.

She had a strong relationship with her husband, and they could almost always be found in each other’s company. Pamphile was always writing, noting down everything she heard from her husband, from the many dignitaries who visited their home, and from anything she happened to read herself. (Because of this, her work is sometimes ascribed directly to her husband, whose name is stated differently by different authors.)

The Commentaries was highly thought of by her contemporaries and later writers, who quoted and referenced it extensively. As well as this main work, Pamphile also wrote a number of epitomes on other people’s histories, including a writings on disputes and on sex. (Although most of these we know now only through references made by others.)

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ANNE DUDLEY BRADSTREET (c. 1612 – September 16, 1672) (Anna Friel)

A wealthy and well educated Puritan, Anne was the first woman in the American colonies to be published as a writer and poet. Her education had been very good - especially for a woman - and because of that she wrote with ease about history, medicine, politics, and theology as well as more personal matters. (Her own collection of books was reported to be numbered at over eight hundred.)

Despite living within a society that saw women as inferior beings who needed to focus only on serving their husbands and raising their children, Anne was outspoken in her disagreement with those ideas. In a poem about Queen Elizabeth, she writes: “Now say, have women worth? or have they none? Or had they some, but with our queen is’t gone? Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long, But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong, Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason, Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.”

WOMEN OF HISTORY | SIMONETTA VESPUCCI, LA BELLA SIMONETTA (1453 - 26 April 1476) (Miriam Leone)

The daughter of a minor Genoese nobleman, Simonetta married well at fifteen and entered into court life in Florence where she was immediately popular, with the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano in particular taking a great liking to her. (She may or may not have later taken Giuliano as a lover.) Her looks were famed, with people labeling her the most beautiful woman in Florence (and, later, the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance). 

She was quickly discovered by artists like Botticelli and it wasn’t long before every nobleman in Florence was completely enamoured with the young Simonetta. Botticelli himself was said to be in love with her, requesting to be buried at her feet after his death.

When she died at the age of just twenty-two, the entire city reportedly mourned her death and thousands of people followed her coffin through the streets.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | MADDALENA CASULANA (c. 1544 – c. 1590) (Fiona Apple)

Maddalena was an Italian composer, singer and lutenist, and the first woman in the history of western music to have her music printed and published. Although sixty-six madrigals (secular vocal music compositions) have survived, we know very little about her actual life.

She was prolific in her life time, flourishing in the Italian Renaissance, and well respected by her fellow composers and musicians: despite her gender, Maddalena's music was regularly performed and appreciated, even by nobility.

Very close to Isabella de’ Medici, Maddalena dedicated some of her works to her. In one of these she wrote, “I want to show the world, as much as I can in this profession of music, the vain error of men that they alone possess the gifts of intellect and artistry, and that such gifts are never given to women.”

WOMEN OF HISTORY | HORTENSIA (fl. 1st century bc) (Maribel Verdú)

A Roman noble, the well-read Hortensia was the daughter of orator Quintus Hortensius and is famous for an important event in 42 BC: To fund an ongoing war it was voted on that a tax would be placed on Rome’s 1400 wealthiest women. Outraged by this, the women chose Hortensia to speak for them. With a group of citizens, Hortensia and her women marched into the Roman Forum and she delivered her speech, some of which was documented by the Greek historian Appian:

“You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, and our brothers, whom you accused of having wronged you; if you take away our property also, you reduce us to a condition unbecoming our birth, our manners, our sex. Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in the honours, the commands, the state-craft, for which you contend against each other with such harmful results? ‘Because this is a time of war,’ do you say? When have there not been wars, and when have taxes ever been imposed on women, who are exempted by their sex among all mankind?”

Although outraged that they were being challenged by a woman, the next day the number of women to be taxed was taken down to 400. Her words were praised by both contemporaries and those who would write of her later.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ARTEMISIA I OF CARIA (approx. 480 BC) (Zuleikha Robinson)

Artemesia was the ruler of the Greek city state of Halicarnassus (situated in modern Turkey) and advisor to the ruler of the Persian empire, Xerxes, with whom she had made an alliance to strengthen her lands. He in turn made her a commander in his army (the only woman to do so) and when he attacked the Greeks in the Battle of Salamis, Artemesia commanded five ships on the side of the Persians.

A clever strategist, Artemisia counseled the Persian king to coordinate a joint land-sea offensive on the Greeks - a suggestion which he unwisely refused - as well as convincing Xerxes retreat back into Asia Minor (contrary to the advice of his other commanders) when she saw that defeat was sure.

Despite the failure of the Persians, Artemisia kept control of her land and the support of his armies.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA (350 – March 415) (Claudia Black)

Daughter of the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia was a Roman Egyptian philosopher and the first notable woman in the field of mathematics. Not only was she clever and perceptive, but she was willful enough to gain herself a position teaching philosophy and astronomy to young men, a role in which she was admired and revered despite her gender.

No interest in romance, Hypatia remained unmarried her whole life, dedicating herself instead to the seeking of knowledge and the bettering of her mind. Hypatia was sixty when, accused of causing political unrest, she was attacked by a mob who stripped her naked and dragged her behind a cart through the streets before killing her.

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”

WOMEN OF HISTORY | SIBYLLA, QUEEN OF JERUSALEM (1160 – 1190) (Margaret Made)

As queen of Jerusalem during the Crusades, Sibylla was a diplomatic and military leader, showing cunning and strength in organsing the defence of of her city against the attacking forces of Saladin.

Her first husband died when she was still princess, but her second arranged marriage was to Guy of Lusignan, who turned out to be so supremely unpopular through his terrible choices that the nobilty forced her to divorce him before they would let her rule. Sibylla agreed to do this to please them as long as they would allow her choose who could marry instead. They agreed to her terms and Sibylla was crowned sole ruler of Jeruselam. She immediately announced that she would take Guy as her ‘new’ husband. He would only ever rule in appearance, with Sibylla remaining the true power until her early death.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ALESSANDRA GILIANI (1307 - 26 March 1326) (Gloria Loitz)

Italian-born Alessandra Giliani was an anatomist and surgical assistant to ‘father of anatomy’ Mondino de Liuzzi, professor of medicine at the University of Bologna. Under him Alessandra served as the first female prosector (preparer of dissections for anatomical study) in Italy and developed the method of draining blood from a corpse and replacing it with coloured dye to allow blood vessels to be more easily seen.

She was just nineteen when she died in a fire, and a plaque was erected at the Church of San Pietro e Marcellino in Rome to honour her.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ENHEDUANNA (2285-2250 BCE) (Rachida Brakni)

An Akkadian princess and high priestess to the god Nanna, Enheduanna is one of the earliest women in history that we know the name of, and is regarded as the earliest known author and poet in the world.

Her father, King Sargon of Akkad, appointed her as High Priestess at Ur in an attempt to strengthen his rule in the south of Sumeria, and it was there that she began writing. Her Sumerian Temple Hymns (as one of her collections is now called) are regarded as one of the first attempts at creating a systematic theology. In one of these hymns she writes: “My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”

Long after Enheduanna’s death her hymns continued to be copied and used, and there is evidence to suggest that she took on a semi-divine role in the eyes of her people.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | APHRA BEHN (10 July 1640 – 16 April 1689) (Berenice Bejo)

Aphra Behn was the first professional woman writer in England and one of the most prolific dramatists of the Restoration, more plays by her being performed than by anyone else.

Among those dedicated to the restored King Charles II, Aphra used her skill with language to pen attacks on those that fought against him. She ended up becoming part of the king’s court and from there was recruited as a political spy during the the Second Anglo-Dutch War and sent to Belgium under the codename of Astrea or Agent 160.

Although she provided valuable political and navel information, Aphra was paid badly for her service and on her return to England was briefly imprisoned for debt. She took up writing plays, much of her interest in the entanglement of sex and power, and the frank discussion of female sexuality. The inappropriateness of these subjects for a woman to be writing about meant she was widely disregarded in her own time, but more recently her plays have been seen as legitimate explorations of race, class, and gender.

She once stated that she had led a “life dedicated to pleasure and poetry.”

WOMEN OF HISTORY | PHARAOH HATSHEPSUT (1508–1458 BC) (Joan Smalls)

Hatshepsut was one of the most successful of the Egyptian Pharaohs and ruled longer than any other woman, she also ruled not as Queen but as Pharaoh in her own right. Images of her have her dressed in the traditional regalia of the male Pharaohs, including the false beard.

Although Hatshepsut led successful military campaigns early in the twenty-two years of her rule, her reign was mostly considered to be a prosperous and peaceful era in Egyptian history. During it she funded expeditions of exploration, re-established trading that had been lost during foreign occupation, and brought wealth to Egypt which she used for the hundreds of construction projects she undertook, grander and more numerous than what had come before. (Pharaohs after her would attempt to claim some of these projects as their own, and so much statuary was produced during her era that almost every major museum in the world boasts at least one piece.)

She gave her co-regent control of the armies of Egypt and there seems to be have no challenges to her leadership and rule, either from him or from anyone else.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | GORGO, QUEEN OF SPARTA (b. 506 BC) (Olga Kurylenko)

Gorgo is remarkable for being one of the very few historical women actually mentioned by Herodotus. She was Spartan royalty: daughter of a king, wife of a king, and then mother of a king.

At the age of eight she was already advising her father on matters of war and she grew up to be known for her political skill and wisdom.

Plutarch famously quotes her thusly: “When asked by a woman from Attica, ‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’, she said: 'Because we are the only ones who give birth to men.’”

WOMEN OF HISTORY | ALAQAI BEKI, PRINCESS WHO RUNS THE STATE (c. 1191 - ?) (Selenge Erdene Ochir)

Third daughter of Genghis Khan, Alaqai was raised by her mother, Borte, and Borte’s mother-in-law on the Mongolian steppes, and it was Borte who instilled into Alaqai a sense of duty to serve the nation. Before marrying into the Mongol Empire, Borte have been born to a tribe who trusted in the wisdom and diplomacy of their daughters, and not the force of their sons, to protect them. It can be hardly surprising that Borte raised her daughters to be rulers, and their father thought the same.

When the Onggud allied themselves to Genghis Khan, it was the sixteen year old Alaqai who was betrothed to one of their men in power to help cement the alliance and become the Mongol’s first ruler in a foreign land. Once there Alaqai dismissed his other wives but their children didn’t lose their status. (The Mongols saw no difference between legitimate and illegitimate children, all being equal in their eyes.) Genghis Khan gave his daughters an important message when they married: The nation was her first husband. Her second husband was her own reputation, and third came any actual man she married. In control of the Onggud lands, Alaqai was able to provide support and horses for her father’s armies when they crossed the Gobi desert.

A few years after she came to power, a rebel faction within the Onggud erupted and came against Alaqai, assassinating her husband and other Mongol sympathisers. Alaqai barely escaped with her life, and took her stepsons to go shelter with a nearby faction of her father’s army nearby. She returned with some of these soldiers to the city and quickly took out the rebels.

Genghis Khan's strategy against rebelling nations was to kill every male taller than the wheel of a Mongol cart, but this time Alaqai stepped in and convinced her father to only kill those that had been directly involved in the attacks. Because of her actions, the Onggud became the only nation to ever rebel against the Khan and continue to exist. After this act of loyalty to the people under her control, the Onggud never rebelled again.

In time, Alaqai’s father came to rely on her wise rulership more and more and eventually she was in control of millions of people across Northern China, being given the title ‘Princess Who Runs the State’. Illiterate when she began her rulership, Alaqai educated herself, learning to read and write in more than one language so that she could properly oversee the administration of her kingdom, and promoting literacy within her lands. (It was said by visitors that she read daily for pleasure, with a special interest in texts about religion and medicine.)

For twenty years Alaqai ruled and remained loyal to her father and her nation, but having lost her only son in battle meant that her own dynasty could not continue. After death her name quickly faded.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | DAE JANG GEUM (fl. early 16th century) (Eun-Kyung Shin)

Jang Geum was the only female Royal Physician in Korean history.

Mentioned several times in official documents and personal journals from the time, very little detail was ever given about her and her life outside the court is completely unknown. It is known, however, that King Jungjong was impressed enough with her knowledge that he entrusted her with the care of himself and his family.

She was, at the time, the third highest ranking officer in the court and was allowed the title Dae (‘great’) before her name. To this day, no other woman in Korea has ever held the postion of Royal Physician.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | GIULIA TOFANA (d. July 1659) (Nur Aysan)

Giulia was an Italian woman who became a professional poisoner, a trade she possibly learned from her mother, a woman who had been accused of poisoning her own husband. Either way Giulia made a name for herself in potions and for fifty years she supplied poison to those that wanted to get rid of their husbands, employing her own daughter and a handful of other women to work for her. She even invented her own poison, Aqua Tofana, which would become famous across Naples and Rome.

Especially sympathetic to the low status of women, Guilia often sold her poisons to those trapped in unhappy and violent marriages and because of this became known as a friend to the downtrodden of her gender.

When the Papal authorities discovered her business Guilia was popular enough with the people of Rome that they tried to protect her from arrest, but she was soon taken and tortured until she made a confession. She admitted to killing 600 men throughout her career, but how close or far from the truth that was it’s impossible to say. She and her daughter were found guilty of murder and executed.