Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Eleanor of Aquitaine

For those with an interest in this formidable medieval queen, please listen to the podcast I have written for "The History of England" on Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Eleanor was a powerful and influential woman who was not universally admired in her own day.  Her actions threatened the men of her times, notably Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Sugar, and both her husbands, Louis and Henry.  She achieved much and lost much in the quest to maintain what she believed was rightfully hers; she defied two kings with her enlightened views; she encouraged her sons to rebel against their father; imprisoned and forgotten, released and revered - a woman not of her times. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zenobia - Queen of Palmyra

As news reaches us that the ancient citadel of Palmyra is under siege (see The Australian newspaper article), here is a small piece I have written on one of its most notable citizens, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.

Born c240AD, Zenobia was named Septimia Zenobia in Latin, or Bat Zabbai in her native Aramaic. She was a woman of distinctive appearance: it was said that she was of dark and swarthy complexion, with black eyes and teeth that resembled white pearls. Her strong and forceful personality led her to be alternatively called a tyrant and good emperor. She was an incredible beauty, and this may have been brought her to the attention of Odaenathus, ruler of Palmyra; but it was her character and intelligence (she spoke several languages - Egyptian, Greek and her native Aramaic) that kept her by his side throughout his reign. Zenobia was extremely knowledgable on the history of Alexandria, and was said to have written an account of the city. Zenobia claimed to be directly descended from Cleopatra, and made her her role model. This identification with this great Egyptian Queen may have also fuelled her own ambitions.

In 260AD when the Persians captured the Emperor Valerian and threatened the Empire itself, Odaenathus, son of a ruling Palmyrene family (Julii Aurelii Septimii) and Imperial Consul, assumed the defence of the Asian provinces, and backed by his family, recruited his own troops. Accompanied by Zenobia, he set out against the Persian King, and ultimately defeated the persian army, securing Mesopotamia for Rome. After crushing a rebellion against the Emperor, Odaenathus was made Governor of all the Roman provinces in the East; he then proclaimed himself King of Palmyra.

Odaenathus reigned for seven years. Zenobia endured the same rigors as her husband, and supported and embellished his court with artists and writers. Despite this seeming closeness of relationship, Zenobia conspired to have her husband assassinated (2767AD). It was said that she feared that Herodes, Odaenathus' eldest son by a previous marriage, would succeed. Zenobia viewed Heodes as a worthless, spoilt boy for whom she had not time. Odaenathus was duly murdered by his cousin Maeonius, who was then killed by Zenobia's own soldiers. Conveniently soon after the death of his father, Herodes disappeared. Zenobia's young son, Vaballathus was proclaimed, but as he was not old enough to rule in his won right, Zenobia was entrusted with the regency, aided by her late husband's friends. There was never any direct reference to Zenobia being involved in either of these two actions, though she did indeed reap the rewards.

Soon after taking control of Palmyrene affairs, Zenobia received an invitation to take direct control of Egyptian affairs by Timagenes, a dissatisfied military and political commander, originally appointed by Rome. Zenobia accepted this opportunity and though she was concerned about an open confrontation with Rome, she was advised that the risks and the prize (being the Nile) were well worth it. At this time the Romans were distracted by the Gothic invasion of Greece and Asia Minor. Zenobia's army numbered 70,000 and was under the command of her general Zabdas; he joined the Egyptian army and together they defeated a much smaller Roman-Egyptian army. Zabdas re-established Timagenes and left a garrison behind. The outraged Emperor sent his vetran admiral Probus to Alexandria - the Palmyrenes were ousted but Timagenes rallied, and in a surprise attack defeated Probus. Egypt was now loyal to Palmyra. It was at this stage that Zenobia began entertaining thoughts of establishing her own empire rivalling Rome.

Hot on the heels of her success in Egypt, Zenobia sent an army into Asia Minor, establishing herlf in Ankar and Chalcedon (opposite Constantinople on the Bosphorus). But her rule was short-lived. A new Emperor had come to power (270AD) and not just any Emperor; this was Aurelian, a ferocious conqueror who, on coming to power, ruthlessly crushed all rebellions and incursions - rebels fled, cities capitulated before him. But he was also human and often acted with greaat clemency, which made Zenobia's resistance to him very difficult. By the time of Aurelian's accession to power, Zenobia's fame was widespread, and it would not be long before a confrontation between the "Iron Lady" and the Emperor would be forthcoming.

Aurelian advanced to Antioch (272AD) but the Palmyrene army blocked his way - nevertheless, Aurelian shrewdly noted that Zenobia's army consisted mainly of heavily armoured cavalry - both horse and rider encased in mail and plate armour. Standing aside his infantry, Aurelian ordered his cavalry to make an ordered retreat sufficiently long enough to tire the palmyrene cavalry, whereupon they were attacked by the Romans. The Palmyrenes retreated within the walls of Antioch but the people wanted to turn them over to the Romans. Under cover of night, the remnants of the Palmyrene army fled to Emesa where Zenobia was awaiting news.

Upon receiving news of the defeat, Zenobia decided to lead the bulk of her army personally. Zenobia donned her mail tunic which was then draped with purple cloth, secured by a large brooch; on her head was a Persian style helmet. She decided to face Aurelian at Emses (modern Homs). Her army of 70,000 warriors consisted chiefly of her elite "clibanarii" (noblemen), Arab mounted archers and Lebanese-Syrian footsoldiers. Aurelian was quite content to let the heavily armoured horsemen subject themsleves to the steadily increasing heat. Again Aurelian ordered retreat but it was not so orderly this time. The Roman cavalry was easily defeated by the palmyrene cavalry but they in turn was easily overcome by the awaiting disciplined Roman footsoldiers. Zenobia fled back to Palmyra, pursued by Aurelian who besieged the fortified city. Aurelian demanded Zenobia surrender, she in turn defied him. Though well equiped for a long siege, Zenobia's advisors urged her to flee to the Persian Empire, and so under cover of night she left, on camel and accompanied by only a few faithful bodybguards.

Furous at her flight, Aurelian sent Arab horsemen after Zenobia. She was captured just as she was about to set foot in Persia - Palmyra surrendered on receiving the news of her capture. Zenobia was taken to Emesa and tried for crimes against the Empire. Zenobia blamed her actions on bad counsellors, chiefly the Greek philosopher Longinus - they were duly executed. Zenobia's own life was spared only because Aurelian wished to have her lead his triumphant parade through Rome. Thus, laden with many jewels and bound with gold chains, Zenobia was paraded through Rome before a hysterical crowd, the symbol of Aurelian's supremacy over the East (274AD). It was claimed that Zenobia, faithful to her role model Cleopatra, took her own life. It was also said that, although she considered suicide, she in fact married a Roman nobleman and spent the remainder of her life in Tivoli, her notoriety ensuring her celebrity status among the Roman aristocracy.

Mexican Politics - Josefina Vazquez Mota

From the LA Times:
A former congresswoman and education minister, Vazquez Mota, 51, has eagerly embraced her historic position as Mexico's first female presidential candidate for a major political party. In a contest where she trails the leader by a wide margin, she does not hesitate to play the so-called gender card at chosen moments.

In a meeting with foreign journalists last year, she said she was confident that traditionally machista Mexico was ready for a female leader.

"We have won many campaigns for many men. The moment has come to win campaigns for ourselves," she said, grouping herself with Chile's Michelle Bachelet and Brazil's Dilma Rousseff.

Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme

A man whose daughter was murdered by her violent boyfriend has handed in a petition at Downing Street calling for a change in the law to protect women from domestic abuse.

Michael Brown, from Batley, West Yorkshire, travelled to London as part of a campaign to introduce "Clare's Law" named after his daughter, Clare Wood, who was killed by her boyfriend in February 2009.

The law would allow women to find out if their boyfriends or husbands had a previous history of domestic violence.

Clare Wood met her boyfriend, George Appleton, on Facebook, unaware of his long history of violence against women, including repeated harrassment, threats and kidnapping one of his former girlfriends at knifepoint.

He strangled Clare Wood and set her on fire before going on the run, before taking his own life.

At an inquest into her death, which was held last year, coroner Jennifer Leeming said women in abusive relationships has a right to know about the violent past of the men they were with. A verdict of unlawfull killing by strangulation was recorded as the cause of her death.

Mother Goddess Image Found

From The Hindi:

The first-ever ‘Mother Goddess' image carved in sandstone rock — representing the earliest perception of idolising woman as Goddess dating back to 3 Century BC — has been found close to the Sri Chalukya Kumara Bheemeswara Swamy temple at Samarlakota near Kakinada in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.

Archaeological Survey of India's Superintending Archaeologist R. Krishnaiah, told The Hindu that while conducting an exploration around the Bheemeswara Swamy temple to ascertain its origin and antiquity, their Deputy Superintending Archaeologist D. Kanna Babu discovered the stunning and unique image of a seated mother goddess (Yakshini), in a remote corner outside the temple.

The centuries old temple is revered as one of the ‘Pancharama Kshetras.' From the archaeological research point of view, the ‘mother goddess' sculpture was a rare discovery, said Mr. Krishnaiah. This find would be vital for reconstructing the cultural life of ancient Andhra, the origin and evolution of early cultural art. This idol was believed to be from the Ashoka period in 3 Century BC.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Notable Ethiopian Women

From Tadias - an article on women filmmakers from Ethiopia:
Documentary filmmaking holds a special place in the history of African women’s cinema. In 1972, Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye became the first sub-Saharan African woman to make a commercially distributed feature film when she directed “Kaddu Beykat”. The film, a mixture of fiction and documentary, depicts the economic problems suffered by Senegalese village farmers because of agriculture policies that Faye says rely on an outdated, colonial system of groundnut monoculture. Faye would go on to direct several documentaries often focused on rural life in her native Senegal.

From Abugida - an article on Empress Taitu:
For the first time African forces had defeated a European power bent on forging an empire in Africa. And once again in the history of Ethiopia, the victory was influenced by a powerful Ethiopian woman, Empress Taitu. Also, the question of racial superiority was beginning to affect western societies, especially post-slavery America. Many were surprised that an African nation could defeat a white colonial power such as Italy.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Forgotten Femmes

Margaret Chase Smith
From Bangor Daily News: "A Facebook campaign to get Margaret Chase Smith included on a list of influential American women proved successful this week when the pioneering politician was given her due. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first woman to be elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate in 1948. She represented Maine until 1972, when she was defeated, Richards said."

Anna Julia Cooper
From Huffington Post: "Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) is not a household name, nor is she someone encountered in most U.S. history books. Yet this woman's life spanned from the post-slavery era to the civil rights movement, and throughout all those years, she fervently pushed for progress, particularly for education and progress for African-American women. Perhaps it is fitting that in the current U.S. Passport, which features numerous quotes from famous American men, Anna Julia Cooper stands alone -- as the only woman and the only African-American -- who is quoted for her advocacy of freedom as a birthright of humanity."

Clover Adams
From the Wall Street Journal: "If a Henry James sort of American innocent could plunge straight into the letters of Clover Adams (1843-85), the swim would be fast and bracing. The letters collected in "First of Hearts," written to amuse her widowed father in Boston after she and her husband moved to Washington, are a portrait of a lady who was an aesthete, a passionate reader, a foodie, a lover of dogs and horses, and a wicked sharp observer of American politics as then practiced in the early 1880s. All but one of the letters in "First of Hearts" were written between 1880 and 1883. Although they are only a small slice of a life, they show many of Clover's abiding preoccupations: flowers, fashion, fine art and fine furnishings."

More Notable Women

Namira Salim
From The National: "Having walked where most women, and men, could only dream of walking, Namira Salim is busy preparing for the flight of her life. At 36, the Columbia University graduate has already conquered the North and South poles, skydived from Mount Everest and now plans to see the stars.

"I made a resolution to touch the heights of the skies and the depths of the ocean," she says.

The Pakistani-born, Dubai- and Monaco-based artist and self-confessed adventurer is preparing to make history again this year when she climbs aboard Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic flight into space."

Dawne Deskins
From WKTV: " For the first time in its 25-year history, a woman is in command of the Eastern Air Defense Sector in Rome. 

Col. Dawne Deskins took command during a changing of the guard ceremony Friday morning in the Air Force Laboratory auditorium. Col. Deskins is no stranger to EADS; up until Friday morning, she was vice commander of the outfit responsible for safeguarding all U.S. airspace east of the Mississippi. As one of her superiors put it during the ceremony, Deskins goes from being a responsible person here, to THE responsible person. "

Mulikate Akande-Adeola
From Saturday Tribune: " FOR Hon.Mulikat Akande-Adeola ,all she ever and always wanted in life was to make a positive difference in other people’s live. As a child, she thought the only way to accomplish this all-important obligation on earth was to strive to acquire sound education and enter into politics. Some decades later, Hon. Mulikat Akande-Adeola, first ever female House Leader in Nigeria’s political history and the only female among principal officers (Senate & House of Representatives) of the 7th Assembly is doing what she has always wanted to do—serve. The outstanding lawmaker does not need elaborate introduction as her antecedents are well known to many."

Play: Top Girls

From EADT 24:
As some of the most powerful and eccentric women from myth and history sit down for dinner in 80s Britain, entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to their host; Doc Martin actress Caroline Catz.

Pope Joan, stoned to death after giving birth; Lady Nijo, Japanese mistress of an emperor and later a Buddhist nun; Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, the patient wife from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dull Gret from an oil painting by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Not your usual dinner party guests.

As Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking drama Top Girls plays out, you find their host, the ruthless Marlene - part feminist, part Margaret Thatcher Acolyte - has more in common with them than you think. Not just the inequalities and conflicts they’ve faced as a result of their gender.

Max Stafford-Clark’s critically acclaimed new production comes to the New Wolsey from February 21-25 following its sell-out run at Chichester Festival Theatre and triumphant West End transfer.

Alina Fernandez at Wilkes University

Alina Fernandez, the daughter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, will share her first-person, intimate account of growing up in Cuba at Wilkes University on March 22 as part of Women’s History Month. She will speak at 7 p.m. in 101 Stark Learning Center. The event is sponsored by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Diversity Education Consortium and the Office of Diversity Initiatives, and it will be free to the public.

Through her speech, Fernandez guides you through her life in Cuba and describes the surrounding political environment during the 1960s and 70s. Fernandez reveals exciting and suspenseful anecdotes, snapshots of Cuban society, her inside scoop on Cuban politics, and a detailed view of her father.

Summer Reading

Some interesting books that I would like to read over the remainder of summer (in the southern hemisphere).

The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose - "... fuses history and suspense moving from Cleopatra's Egypt and the terrors of revolutionary France to Tibet's battle with China and the glamour of modern-day Paris ..."
Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon - follows the quest of a young French knight named Vallon in search of four rare gyrfalcons in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz - a novel of Sherlock Holmes narrated by Dr Watson 
We All Wore Stars by Theo Coster - memories of the classmates of Anne Frank
Treasure From The Attic by Mirjam Pressler - story of Anne Frank's family
Life Below Stairs by Alison Maloney - lives of Edwardian servants
Abandoned Women by Lucy Frost - Scottish women convicts exiled to Van Dieman's Land (Australia) in the early 19th century
Contested Will by James Shaprio - another "who wrote Shakespeare"

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Female Flatfoots of Old Chicago

Strayer's story reminded me of one of her contemporaries, one of the most fascinating and inspiring figures in early 20th-century Chicago: an early feminist, an outspoken woman who could be as tough with her ex and judges as she was with criminals, and an entertainingly canny self-promoter who was, for a brief period, a public figure of considerable reknown—yet almost completely unsung today.

Like Strayer, Alice Clement was a gumshoe, but Clement spent her life working for the Chicago Police Department as the city's first female detective. And like Strayer, she made headlines; when I came across Clement's name—she doesn't have much of a legacy on the Web—I read through her press clippings, enthralled. And there were many: Clement was a woman of great integrity and intellectual independence, but she had a P.T. Barnum streak in her as well. Which is why I was surprised that very little had been written about her since her death.

Madam CJ Walker

From Styleite:
Opportunities for Black people — and especially for Black women — in the years following the abolition of slavery were few and far between. But Madam CJ Walker, who was born to former slaves in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, found a way to make herself not only a successful beauty industry entrepreneur, but also the first American woman (and the first Black person) to become a millionaire.

Walker’s rags to riches story is so great and unique that it’s been the focus of a study by the Harvard Business School, not to mention a slew of books. She was born in the Louisiana Delta just two years after the end of the Civil War and became an orphan at age 7. She and her older sister picked cotton in Mississippi for years to make ends meet, until Walker married at age 14.

Her husband died two years after her only daughter, Lelia, was born, and Walker moved with Lelia to St. Louis, where her brothers had set up shop as successful barbers. She worked as a laundress and a cook, and managed to send her daughter to the city’s public schools.

Walker succumbed to a scalp condition in the 1890s that caused her to lose most of her hair, and her official biography says she experimented with a variety of treatments until she found a pomade made by another Black entrepreneur, Annie Malone. Malone’s hair products worked so well for Walker that in 1905 she moved to Denver to sell Malone’s products, and shortly after moved back to St. Louis and married Charles James Walker, a journalist. She changed her name to CJ Walker and set out to create her own hair conditioner, which she marketed and sold under the name Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Anna - Countess of the Covenant

I have just finished reading the fascinating story of Lady Anna Mackenzie - Anna, Countess of the Covenant by Lady Mary McGrigor - and what a tale it is.

Lady Anna was the daughter and co-heiress of Colin Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Seaforth, who aged 19yo, married young Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarres (1640) at the height of the English Civil War.  Both Anna and Alexander were Covenanters - Presbytarians who opposed the return of Catholicism as the religion of Scotland. The Balcarres also were strong supporters of the monarchy under Charles I - and the return of Charles II and the ousting of the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell.

The Parliamentarians were in the ascendancy, and Alexander fled into the Scottish Highlands following his military defeat.  In a rare and almost unheard of action, Anna accompanied her husband on both his campaign and his exile in Holland, enduring all the hardships along the way.  Anna took her two daughters with her into exile but left behind her two young sons in the care of a family friend.  Their lands forfeited, Anna was granted the role of Governess to the future King William III at the Hanover Court.

The Balcarres returned to Scotland ahead of the return of Charles II of England - Alexander was ill and would die, leaving Anna in a perilous financial situation.  Anna would find some consolation with a second marriage, to Archibald, 9th Earl of Argyll.  However, their adherence to Scottish Presbytarianism put them at odds with the Catholic James, Duke of York (future King James VII & II).  When Argyll attempted to overthrow James, he was convicted of treason, imprisoned - although he would escape both prison and execution with the aid of his daring step-daughter Sophia who, with Anna, suffered in his stead.

Both Anna and Argyll were now confirmed outlaws - their huge estates forfeited, Anna again found herself in dire financial straits.  Argyll meanwhile set about planning for the ousting of James in favour of William of Hanover and his wife Mary (daughter of James).  Argyll would pay the ultimate price for his loyalty to the Hanovers - he was executed (1689).  Anna would spend the remaining years seeking financial compensation from the monarchy for the lost estates of both hers and Argyll's heirs.

Anna would die at the age of 85yo (1708) - "she lived through the reign of four Stewart kings and one who, although his mother was the daughter of Charles I, and his wife was a daughter of James VII & II, was of Dutch nationality."  Anna was said to have been a woman of great virtue, integrity, piety, beauty and intelligence.  She endured much which no doubt molded her into the remarkable woman that she was.

Lady Mary McGrigor successfully brings to life this amazing woman who did much for the monarchy but was largely forgotten by history.

Further Information:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Aviatrix Bessie Coleman

From DoD Live:
A young woman from rural east Texas, who grew up in a hardscrabble existence as one of 13 children born to poor sharecropper parents, became an unlikely choice to pave the way for future African-American accomplishments in aviation and the U.S. Air Force.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman would go on to be the first female pilot of African-American descent, but more importantly would later influence the accomplishments of others who would continue the evolution of African-American involvement in aviation throughout the 20th century.

William J. Powell, a lieutenant serving in an all-black unit during World War I, penned in his 1934 book, “Black Wings,” “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than a racial barrier. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”