Historical fiction author Mary Sharratt posted on Facebook this week asking for the names of the most maligned women in history.
I started copying the names, including the repeats, and filled five sheets of paper. The names ranged from Eve (including a discussion of whether she actually lived and whether that counted) to Hillary Clinton, who was listed several times.
The commenters included famous women, such as Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine the Great, and less famous women like Ruth Ellis and Ethel Rosenberg.
One discussion centered on Wallis Simpson, and whether she was really as bad as she is portrayed. A commenter defended her, noting how faithful she was to her husband and how poorly she was treated by society at the time. Schoolchildren in the 1930s even blamed her in a chant: “Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs Simpson’s pinched our King.”
I learned that we have to be very careful if we bash women in history. Popular lore sometimes paints women as being bad–and blaming them–but we need to dive into the facts and make up our own mind.
As a historical novelist writing about strong women in ancient times, I found that true of Fulvia, Marc Antony’s wife. Ancient Roman writers branded her as being greedy and interfering with her husbands’ business (she had three). They didn’t like her because she had intelligence and influence with men, something they considered unseemly.
Historical Roman writers also maligned Cleopatra, calling her a “whore queen” because she opposed and ultimately lost to the Roman Emperor Augustus. He had his side of the story written into the history books.
Yes, it’s true that history is written by the victors.
But let’s not be fooled. Let’s look deeper into the lives of historical women.