wednesdays for women

Wednesdays for Women: Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor

I want to bring back Wednesdays for Women! I miss getting to research and learn about great historical women each week. This one, admittedly, is less research based, but I was on an antiquities kick after reading Claudius the God (Robert Graves is one of my favorites), and stumbled over the old three hour Cleopatra movie with Elizabeth Taylor. I was surprised to see Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar (not necessarily the first 60’s star the mind jumps to at the thought of masculine strength and nation founders), but sexy Rexy didn’t disappoint. Equally interesting was Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe throughout the movies. The ’60s take on Egyptian hats is kind of ridiculous (even more ridiculous than most 60s hats in general), but seeing all of them is kind of like watching a fire–they’re so strange you can’t really stop looking. Without further ado: the style of Cleopatra!
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Wednesdays for Women #8: Zenobia

In honor of the Kurdish victory in Syria over ISIS, today’s W4W will talk about one of the greatest Syrian Queens who had adept military skill of her own: Zenobia.tumblr_mbrcrsrvOR1rq5o2oo1_1280

Back in the day she ruled, she was officially ruler of the “Palmyrene Empire,” which is modern day Syria. She was the second wife of the King Septimus Odaenathus, but is better remembered for her attitude towards the Romans, which was less than friendly. “Ancient sources on her life and reign are the historian Zosimus (c. 490 CE), the Historia Augusta (c. 4th century CE), the historian Zonaras (12th century CE), and historian Al-Tabari (839-923 CE) whose account follows that of Adi ibn Zayd (6th century CE) although she is also mentioned in the Talmud and by other writers.” While these sources note her open challenge to the Roman Empire (which would shortly lend a hand in its downfall), her place in popular history is far more dramatic. Allegedly, Zenobia led an outright revolt against Rome, leading to her capture, which led her chained through the streets of Rome before she was beheaded by Aurelian.ZenobiaCaptive-222x300

But that’s clearly not what makes her worth a Wednesday, so I’ll get to the good part. After her husband’s death (or shall I say murder?), Zenobia took the throne in 267 (her son being too young to rule).  She was very well educated (allegedly educated in Greek and Latin, and fluent in Egyptian and Aramaic), and filled her court with intellectuals. At the time, Palmyra was more like a vassal state to a disintegrating Rome. However, it had the distinct advantage of being a trading stop on the Silk Road at a time where other opportunities up the road had been weakened. In other words, Palmyra was sitting on great trade opportunities a steady stream of inoming wealth in the midst of Roman disorganization. As Rome’s figurehead changed by the week, Zenobia sent her troops to Roman-owned Egypt, conquering it in the name of Palmyra. With Egypt under her belt, negotiations began, and she was able to expand her territory into then-Asia Minor right behind Rome’s back. “By 271 CE she ruled over an empire which stretched from modern-day Iraq across through Turkey and down through Egypt.” Whether she was autonomous or a Roman vassal was even more contested when she printed coins of herself, adopting the name “Augusta.”
zenobiaUnfortunately, Rome did get its act together under the authority of military man Aurelian. He began a march on Zenobia, totally destroying each town in his wake. When a few towns in he encountered the home of a philosopher he liked, he spared the city. Afterwards, Zenobia’s cities sent him their surrenders in advanceso that he was able to practically waltz into Syria. After three battles, two of which the Roman’s feigned retreat before capturing the calvary, Zenobia was captured. Her final days range in mystique from her being poisoned, escaping on a camel, going to trial, or just marrying a Roman differ on the source. Regardless, she was a great leader, known for her stamina, and the Al-Tabri records that she would march on foot with her troops long distances, could hunt as well as any man, and could out-drink anyone. We can only hope those fighters in Syria today display equal valor.

More info: here and here.

Wednesdays For Women: Nautical Edition- The Sea Queen of Connacht

Since women were historically considered unlucky on a ship, our contributions in maritime archives are too sparse for comfort. Still, regardless of sexist rules, women have made their presence on ships (whether known or unknown). However, few have been so openly lauded as Grace O’Malley, or Gráinne Ní Mháille.


Grace O’Malley was the daughter of an Gaelic chieftain –which might make her a princess, according to Disney– who also happened to be a shipping and trade magnate around the early to mid-1500s. However, “shipping” in the 1500s, looked distinctively less like Fedex, and more like the playground of Jack Sparrow. People who wanted to fish anywhere off the clan’s castle-laden coast had to pay a surcharge.  After her father’s death, she took over the family business and became the leader of the Ó Máille clan, whose lands spread over what is now County Mayo.

According to lore, Grace always wanted to sail on her father’s ships, but he wouldn’t let her. One popular retelling has her father refusing because “her hair would get caught in the ropes.” In response, Grace cut off her hair, earning her the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or bald Grace. From what I’ve read about her, not much is known, except that she pretty much did what she wanted. She was powerful and passionate, and she knew how to command men and influence people. The most famous historical event associated with her is probably her audience with Queen Elizabeth.

When her two sons (from her first marriage) and half-brother were captured by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, Grace appealed to Queen Elizabeth directly for their release. For context, the English had been steadily encroaching on what had been self-governed Irish chieftains. Bingham, and by extension Elizabeth’s authority flew directly in the face of everything Grace O’Malley’s family stood for. With this in mind, Grace refused to bow to Elizabeth before negotiations and allegedly had a knife under her dress (for her protection) when she went to meet Elizabeth! Speaking to each other in Latin, they were able to charter a release on the agreement that Grace stop supporting Irish rebellions and Bingham would be removed. It’s unclear how long each of these agreements were abided by (Bingham came back), but it must have been a sight to see these two women, both powerful and rich in their own right, chatting across a tea table.


Otherwise, she was a general sea prowess, laying siege to the coasts from Scotland downwards, and adding to the wealth that she had by her father’s business, mother’s lands, and a thing or two from husband/ lovers along the way.  As to my favorite legend about her, taken from wikipedia, the story goes as follows:

“During a trip from Dublin, O’Malley attempted to pay a courtesy visit to Howth Castle, home of Lord Howth. However, she was informed that the family was at dinner and the castle gates were closed against her. In retaliation, she abducted the Earl’s grandson and heir, Christopher St Lawrence, 10th Baron Howth. He was eventually released when a promise was given to keep the gates open to unexpected visitors and to set an extra place at every meal. Lord Howth gave her a ring as pledge on the agreement. The ring remains in the possession of a descendant of O’Malley and, at Howth Castle today, this agreement is still honoured by the Gaisford St. Lawrence family, descendants of the Baron.”

She could definitely sail, but more than that, she controlled a good deal of the coastline, levying more “taxes/ fees” on those who used the coast, at risk of murder… Either way, she has been represented as the embodiment of Ireland and called the Sea Queen of Connacht.

Shoutout to these South Korean women, known literally as haenyeo, or “sea women.”

For more on actual women pirates, see Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Keep in mind, we know of them because they were the only two women convicted of piracy, so in actuality they may not have been the best pirates…

For newspaper articles on disguised 19th century British women sailors, these will not fail to amuse!

I do not own the rights to the banner image, which is the bronze statue of Grace O’Malley found at Westport House. Grace O’Malley was reportedly the 14th great-grandmother of the generation of sisters currently running the Westport House Estate.

Wednesdays for Women: no more data edition

Hi there, so I have run through my data allotment on wordpress, and I’m waiting for a few funds to come through before I can invest in more space for more pictures. In the meantime, I thought I’d tell you about a few women-related stories buzzing around:

1. Karlie Kloss is funding twenty scholarships for high school age girls to take a 2 week coding class with the Flatiron School in New York. Get more info. about #KodewithKarlie here.

2. Ever wondered why there’s no women on money? Rumor has it an elementary schooler did too, inspiring her to write to Obama (eventually winning her a coveted invitation to the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt). This little story has inspired a movement called Women on Twenties. The premise being that a woman replace Andrew Jackson, who history has not been so kind to, since he was not so kind to Native Americans. He might have beat the bank (famous last words), but that only holds so much currency. You can get involved/ vote here if you’re interested. Personally, I have a soft spot for Eleanor (UN Charter!!), but pick your favorite candidate.

3. My best friend has started her own podcast. It’s called “Not an Idiot,” and the premise is that she researches different things she’s interested in to prove to herself she’s not an idiot. I think she’s the only one with doubts. This woman introduced me to This American Life six years ago, and hasn’t stop dreaming about creating her own “radio show” ever since. Try it out! Her voice is pleasant, and her second episode, launched today, is called Write Me In, and it’s about what it takes to create a screenplay.

4. At the moment my two favorite ladies (after MK&A of course–I can’t even get over how much I love The Row and Elizabeth and James) are two Chicagoans by the names of Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, and let me tell you why. I have always been interested in politics, history, and current events, but I have never found a way to tap into what seems like a maze of information. If I want international news, am I supposed to go to the page of every country? Enter TheSkimm. A novel news concept that basically tells you what’s going on quickly, easily, and without you having to worry about which political party has put their spin on it. It’s basically like your polisci major friend filling you in on what happened over the weekend while you were too busy gushing over the Cinderella movie. And it’s so quick! Just a short email every morning, complete with linked charts and articles (if you care to delve deeper), and you are ready to act like you engaged in the world. If you try it, let me know what you think!

Wednesdays for Women #3: Amelia Bloomer

With the throes of NYFW engulfing us almost like carbon monoxide (you can hardly breathe, but my isn’t it a drowsy sort of pleasant?), I thought it only fair for this Wednesday’s woman to be at least vaguely associated with America and fashion. And although the namesake article of clothing doesn’t fit into the 1970s aesthetic that seems to be de rigueur for anyone with legs this week (save, of course, Jeremy Scott and his baby dolls), it still may be worth our attention.

Amelia_J._Bloomer_-_History_of_IowaAmelia Bloomer, who lent her name to the mid-Nineteenth-century-next-best-thing-to-trousers, is the feminist Episcopal Saint (but really) who began the newspaper, The Lily, after attending the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Originally a temperance journal (slow down thar, pardner), it grew into a biweekly liberation document, heralding moralism and mostly, women’s suffrage. Though relatively short-lived, given her position as editor and publisher of the periodical, she was the first woman to own, operate and edit a news vehicle for women (the prototype to Anna Wintour? ). Though distribution of this document waned, her ideas only became more radical (for the time- and for Iowa), and she recommended that women dress “suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.” A tall order, no (that really just makes me yearn for Yves)?8a66b696fffb23105d85fd0550ff9f9d

But her views weren’t conceptualized until 1851 when Libby Miller donned her more utilitarian suit, borrowed from womenswear in the East. These flouncy pants which tied at the ankles could be worn with a vest or dress and were undoubtedly far more rational than the Victorian styles they regularly had to contend with. Both Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became avid supporters of the new garment, however, Bloomer’s pre-existing circulation gave her a wider reach in projecting her excitement. She became a devout supporter of the pants (adopting them as her every day garb), and eventually one of her stories was picked up by the New York Tribune, bringing it to popular culture and calling it’s women adherents “bloomers.” However, the harassment these women suffered in response to the new trend was too much (gamergate, anyone?), causing Amelia to recant under the auspices of “crinoline” by 1859.

It would take almost another hundred years (and another enterprising Amelia) before women would begin to regularly wear pants. blog-rm-2-bloomers

Wednesdays for Women #2: James “Margaret” Barry

Welcome to the second installment of Wednesdays for Women! Here, I discuss, in brief, awesome/ zany/ inspirational women oft-neglected, despite their brilliance in the conventional history book. Last week kicked off the series with the entrepreneurial Bertha Benz and her distinction of being the first person to drive long-distance in an automobile. This week, I’d like to introduce you to the European woman who introduced the first successful cesarean section to Cape Town (and possibly all of Africa): James Barry.

Though the C-section crops up intermittently throughout popular mythology (Julius Ceasar, Furbaide Ferbend in the Ulster cycle, not to mention early Babylonian, Chinese, and Indian records), given its low chances of success, it was not established as the standard procedure we think of today until the early 1900s (after a number of developments I cannot comprehend regardless of their listed names). According to Wikipedia, “In Great Britain and Ireland, the mortality rate in 1865 was 85%.” Not the odds I’d want to play if I was a pregnant Victorian.

But, South Africa, at least, was beating to a different drum, thanks to the help of James Barry. Educated at the University of Edinburgh Medical School (with the authoritative help of none other than the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda), Barry passed the Royal College of Surgeons examination in 1813. Throughout practice, Barry climbed and descended through the military rankings, rising from a Regimental Officer to an Assistant Staff Surgeon, Medical Inspector, and Inspector General before being demoted to Staff Surgeon (and eventually becoming Inspector General of Hospitals again). Barry’s various assignments under Her Majesty’s Service were just as colorful, serving time in Plymouth, India, Cape Town (working here somewhere between 1815 and 1817 to deliver the cesarean until he departed in 1828), Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Helena, Malta, Corfu, Crimea, Jamaica, and finally Canada. In this sense, you’d call Barry a colonial man, if she weren’t a woman.



Known as Margaret until her departure for medical school, Barry assumed the name John to accompany her mother as a gentleman on their voyage to Edinborough. It is unclear how she was accepted to school, and if this ruse had long been the plan of the family (with Miranda’s help). Nevertheless, Margaret continued to maintain this secret for her entire life.

It was only after she died that the char-woman attending her body discovered her secret. After rumors started floating around, the Regimental Office contacted the doctor (McKinnon) who had filled out Barry’s death certificate, identifying him as “male.” When consulted, the doctor claimed,

“On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young.”

So good, right? What absolute daring to hide a pregnancy from the entire British regiment. That being said, maybe it was the child’s birth that caused her to run off from St. Helena, fleeing mysteriously to England (causing her aforementioned demotion). Additionally, she was known to have fought a few duels over claims of her effeminacy and to have terrorized Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. Regardless, Barry’s pluck and subterfuge deserve our adoration, as beyond her introduction of the cesarean, (though it wasn’t recognized at the time) she is technically the first woman ever to receive a medical degree.

For my info on C-sections, see here. More on James Barry here.

P.S. For those who have followed me for a while now, you’ll know that it was in part my obsession with all things Peter Pan that meant I couldn’t resist writing about another “J. M. Barry.” 😉

Wednesdays for Women #1: Bertha Benz

Call it the prying of destiny, but I am intrigued by exceptional and eccentric women.* I seem to unwittingly scout them out like a puppy on yesterday’s undies– if there is one to be found in the vicinity, the endeavor will inevitably end in my unconscious salivation. What starts as an innocent peruse of Huff Post unravels into the riveting tale of The White Mouse and her gestapo-stumping schemes, a 5-million franc bounty, and the bicycle ride from Hell. I can hardly look for suitable covers of Gene Krupa and Anita O’Day’s “Tea for Two” before I’m thrust head-first into the American tragedy of the Beale family, a Palm Beach modeling gig gone awry and the dilapidated East Hampton home of numerous opossums, raccoons, cats, and, most notably, a mouldering mother riddled by the fear of burglary.

Beset by such a burden, I have decided to unencumber myself in the only way we bloggers know how. Thus, using primarily Wikipedia as a source (and pictures I DO NOT OWN**), I will share some of these weird and wonderful stories of awe-inspiring women with you, beginning with our titular hero, Bertha Benz.


Now you may be whispering to yourself (like a maniacal villain), “Benz, Benz… I feel like I’ve heard that name before,” and in this case, you would be right. The “Benz” you associate with Mercedes (no connection to the Count of Monte Cristo), began with none other than the husband to our Bertha. But before we come to the car which forms the second object of salivation mentioned in this post (see below for a model “Ford” to frame the third), there was a unmarried trollop in the Grand Duchy of Baden investing in the hottest inventor on the market. While that may be a large exaggeration, it is true that the unmarried Bertha (Ringer, as it were) invested a large sum of her own money into the workshop of Karl Benz, and his vision of a motorwagen. This money made it possible for Benz to patent the first automobile, not to mention the real great American pastime (and subject to German law, after they were married she no longer retained an investing power to her money; after all, she had a husband to take care of that while she saw to their five children).

Nevertheless bored with nappies, Bertha decided to invent the modern marketing industry and the brake lining all in one fateful afternoon. Without telling her husband or the authorities (*gasp*), she decided to take the new motorwagen out for a spin– but not one of the short trial runs they had hithero engaged in– Bertha decided to drive 66 miles with two of her sons to visit her mother. Or could her plans be more sinister…

A considerable number of people in 1882 had never seen a car. Thus, on her dawn to dusk moto-cruise, she did things like clean a fuel pipe with a hatpin and insulate a wire with her garter (#justgirlythings), not to mention her various stops along the way, exposing her life’s investment to the general public. By the time she reached her mother’s house, she had caused quite a buzz over her new decidedly-not-a-Radio-Flyer wagen, and she had become the first person to “drive an automobile over a real distance” (for all the Kerouac haters out there, this is where you pin the blame). Her marketing stunt also garnered a great deal of publicity, which helped to create a commodified demand for the new invention. Investment Genius, Test Driver Extraordinaire, McGyver-prototype Inventress, and Marketing Wizard- need I say more?


*It’s not that I have anything against exceptional and eccentric men (*cough Harrison Ford*), there’s just a 99.9% less chance that I will become one with the passing of time.

**so don’t link back to me, link to the link I’ve linked to- respect where it’s due, right? Speaking of which, the featured first image can be found here.