3 (Of Many) Women Who Were Famously Screwed Over By History
In case International Women's Day, the Women's Strike, and the profusion of museums and bookshops putting the work of women on display didn't clue you in, this is Women's History Month. Pretty amazing, yes? And yet a lot of women's history is deeply flawed: women are often written out, written around, written over, or written about in false and degrading ways.
Much of this is due to the fact that history has been often shaped and created by men, and it's an issue that creates problems on all levels of historical experience. Women were often excluded from historical narratives because it's thought their realm was "domestic" and not political (and therefore somehow not relevant); and if they were powerful or achieved dominance, they were often either portrayed as anomalous or, as in many cases, targeted for the fact of their womanhood. Think of the legend of "Cleopatra the seducer," whose death-by-asp was completely made up by men, and whose political legacy was far more extensive than just "slept with famous men." Historians, predominantly from Rome, chose to emphasize her sexuality over her political achievements for their own biased reasons.
The miswriting and underwriting of women has been conducted on many grounds, and sexism isn't the sole one. The documentation of the famous "Ain't I A Woman" speech by Sojourner Truth is an example; a white female chronicler's rendering of her speech into Southern slave dialect, despite the fact that there is very little evidence that this is how Truth talked, is now the standard historical version. She's also a victim of historical pigeon-holing, being both a great rhetorician (which is remembered) and a legal precedent-setter who won an 1827 judgement to recover her illegally-sold son from slavery (which isn't).
However, there are three other examples from the history of famous, powerful women that you may not be entirely aware of, but have inflected the ways in which we talk about them for hundreds (in one case, thousands) of years.
Elimination from history definitely counts as being wronged, and while that particular fate met many prominent women whose roles were airbrushed out of the dominant narrative, Hatshepsut's is perhaps the most alarming.
Perhaps the first female pharaoh in Egypt's history, she ruled over a notably peaceable country in the 15th century BC, acting first as regent for her stepson, Thutmosis III, and then as sole pharaoh in her own right. (The image-fiddling necessary to make the role legitimate was significant; Hatshepsut was often pictured with a presumably-fake beard, to fulfil the proper roles and appearances of the ruler of Egypt. She never, however, hid her true gender.)
After her death, however, her stepson and his own son started a program that, in the words of the New York Times, almost "obliterated from history" her entire existence. Like most rulers, Hatshepsut had legitimized her reign with building projects covered in her own image, including statues and reliefs, all of which were targeted, defaced and smashed. Her name was also removed from official records of rulers. It worked; she was entirely unknown until the 19th century, when hieroglyphs revealing her existence were translated. It was one of the most comprehensive absences from history ever achieved.
The discovery of a new series of broken Hatshepsut artifacts in the 1920s led to the belief that Hatshepsut's erasure was done in revenge for an emotional wrong to Thutmosis, perhaps taking the throne from him; a scholar wrote in the 1950s that "this vain, ambitious, and unscrupulous woman showed herself in her true colors." It's since been reassessed. Thutmosis was likely being politically astute rather than vengeful, partially because he only started rewriting Hatshepsut's legacy late in his own reign, likely because of some worry about the legitimacy of his own kingship and how easily it would pass to his son, Amenhotep II. (Amenhotep II would continue the erasure project once he got the throne, too.) Evil stepmother? Nope. Great ruler whose erasure was misinterpreted by 20th century Egyptologists, all of whom were male? Probably.
Catherine the Great
Slut-shaming powerful women is an extremely old practice, and nobody saw it more in her posthumous reputation than Catherine the Great, who managed to rule Russia and yet is mostly known these days for a scurrilous rumor about having sex with a horse and dying from it. This rumor is, for perhaps obvious reasons, not true, but it was popular, and emerged from a court that played with rumors like playing-cards and was prone to believing anything scandalous about the Empress.
Catherine biographer Virginia Rounding believes that the horse rumor first emerged from travelogues of the 17th century that mentioned that Russians liked indulging in sodomy with horses, but that images of Catherine as sexually uncontrolled and unChristian were widespread anyway; "the male-dominated power circles of Europe," Rounding writes, "could never quite get used to the idea of this husband-less woman constantly increasing the size and influence of her Empire." That Catherine did encounter sexual scandal isn't controversial (she had an extensive affair with Polish noble Stanislaw Poniatowski, who would later become king of Poland with her help). However, her enemies were keen to use anything in their arsenal, true or false, to smear her reputation, and the horse rumor was just one of the many rocketing around depicting her as lawless and unwomanly.
Mary I of England
Mary I is usually depicted as either ruthless (the classic Bloody Mary), completely politically incapable, or both. But the fact remains that history is written by the victors, and Mary, famously Catholic, was succeeded by the Protestant Elizabeth I, whose regime was as cruelly repressive of Catholics as Mary's had been of Protestants. Mary I did, famously, burn over 200 people at the stake, but Elizabeth I was no slouch at this either; she also executed Catholics, including Jesuit missionaries and priests who were tortured and burned. The reputation of Mary as deeply bloody and horrible comes largely from Foxe's Book Of Martyrs, which was published in 1563 during Elizabeth's reign and depicted Mary as essentially a demon.
When it comes to political incapability, that also seems to have been a matter of historical fudging. Mary I, let us remember, was the first woman ever to be on the throne in England, passing the Act Of Regal Power to allow a queen to rule, and encountered both military successes and failures, the latter of which were amped up by Protestant historians in the years after her death and Elizabeth I's coronation. She only had five years to prove her worth, and the country didn't fall apart. Compared to, say, President Donald Trump, she certainly proved her mettle.