Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Uppity Women's History Month
March 12, 1999
March is women's history month. How come we get a special month when
the guys don't? Well, maybe it's because according to most of the
history books there is only one sex in the world. By some biological
miracle it is self-perpetuating.
But the women were there all the time. The Web has all sorts of
interesting material on women's history. One of my favorites is
www.gale.com/gale/cwh/cwhset.html It contains biographies, a timeline
and a daily quiz on women in history, which I usually fail. But far and
away the most entertaining record of fascinating women through the ages
is contained in a series of books written by Vicki León about uppity
women of ancient times, medieval times and the renaissance. She is
historically accurate -- I think -- and irreverently funny.
Her introduction to "Uppity Women of Ancient Times," is, "Uppity B.C.
Defined and Discovered." There was Deborah of Biblical fame. León
says of her, "she doubled as both an early Golda Meir and a Moshe Dayan
for the Israelites." She became a Judge of Israel and put together an
army to fight the Caananites. In the battle, which coincided with a
heavy rain, some 900 chariots of fire got stuck in the mud, Caananites
were put to the sword and Deb was victorious. Then she went back to the
campfire and wrote a 31 verse song to sing to the troops. Sounds a
little like Xena: Warrior Princess.
According to León, Nefertiti was the Jackie Kennedy of her day, around
2700 B.C. Her name means, "the beautiful one has arrived." She tried
to create an Egyptian Camelot and she may - or may not - have been the
mother of King Tut. Like most women of her time, she came to a
mysterious and probably unpleasant end.
When Irene of Athens was crowned sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire in
797, she became the first woman ever to hold the throne of the old Roman
Empire. Irene ranks with Egyptian queen Hatshepsut and Russian empress
the Great as a breaker of male-dominated dynasties.
Females figured prominently in Greek and Roman mythology, but most of
them were Goddesses. Antigone is one of my favorite mortals. After the
good old boys told her to shut up and sit down on the sidelines, she
charged out onto the battle field to retrieve the body of her brother.
For her trouble she was condemned to be buried alive, which was an early
example of what has often happened to pushy women ever since. Joan of
Arc, the witches of Salem, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger come to
León's introduction in "Uppity Women of Medieval Times" is titled,
"When Uppityhood was in Flower."
The middle ages were dominated by the Church, and women had no place
there. But they managed to be noticed in a many areas. Margaret of
Anjou, wife of Henry VI founded Queens College of Cambridge University
in 1448. And Mary, Queen of Scots was the first known female golfer.
León says, "Right after her dear second hubby, Darnley, died, she played
18 holes. Scots applauded her stiff upper lip, but wondered a wee bit,
given that he was strangled."
The Renaissance was a bad time for women -- well, bad is a relative
term. León says, "Born again -- But to what?" Henry VIII put six of
them into the history books, but not many of the others achieved the
fame of their earlier sisters.
Drutgin van Caster, a German goldsmith who lived around 1500, became
artisan to Emperor Maximilian. A Frenchwoman, Marie de Gourney, became
an early editor. After his death she was chosen to edit Montaigne's
masses of manuscripts.
When we get to the wild women of American history, there are lots of
them to remember. Without Amelia Bloomer I might not be wearing slacks
today. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical
degree, opened the door for all our fine women doctors. Lucy Stone was
the first woman to keep her name after marriage. Mattie Silks, a famous
Denver madame, was an early opponent of gun control. She engaged in a
formal pistol duel with another of her sisters in 1877. Neither was
hurt, since both were "somewhat intoxicated," although one male
bystander was shot in the neck.
Every month since the beginning of recorded history has been Women's
History Month. The guys who wrote the books just didn't know it.