Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth I, and Abigail Adams. I can’t say my top three childhood heroes were usual. There were other, more acceptable heroes of course, like Hermione Granger and Princess Leia, but as much as I loved them, they didn’t really hold a candle to my fascination with the others. I guess this started with historical fiction. I’ve always loved the genre because it combines two of my favorite things: history and storytelling. Blending facts about another person’s life with a writer’s perceptions and perspectives of those facts is nothing short of amazing. In particular I am drawn to and excited by the lives of women who take control in worlds much different than mine, where they have much less freedom of choice and yet carve paths for themselves anyway.
Let’s take Katherine of Aragon for example—indulge me for a moment while I give you some background here. She was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain (yes, that power couple who brought us the Inquisition and funded Christopher Columbus’s travels) and was born with the highest of expectations, the Beyonce of expectations, if you will. Katherine was raised as a Princess of Spain but also as the future Queen of England thanks to a betrothal at the age of 3. She came to England, and after a bunch of complicated history I won’t get into, married Henry VIII (yea, that fuckboy who killed all his wives) who did nothing short of torture her for the rest of her life, leaving her to die alone and poor and separated from her family. She chose to die this way for the sake of her daughter Mary, and because she refused to take an oath that claimed she was never rightfully queen. She died in defense of her title, her daughter’s inheritance, and her dignity. She wasn’t going to forsake her reality to appease her bully of a husband who wanted her out of the way for convenience’s sake.
I know, I know: is any of that really heroic? Yes. Because, like Katherine of Aragon, all of my female historical heroes above managed some pretty horrific life events, first because they were women and second because they had a position of power. Not only did they have a position of power that men didn’t like, they wielded it in significant ways. In a time when political games often wound up in death by poison or stabbing or betrayal, or hell, just because lack of modern medical knowledge was a thing, they survived. Whether it was fighting for their life in public, being a singular female ruler of a powerhouse country, or being a key advisor to the man shaping their new world, these women’s fortitude to act on their own accord always felt empowering.
On the flip side, there are women who were not as martyred for their strength, but who were revered for it. Abigail Adams was John Adams’ wife, best friend, and political advisor. John Adams was a lawyer, a principal player in the success of the revolutionary war, and the second president of the United States. For the first twenty years of their marriage, they spent more time apart than they did together and Abigail was responsible for raising her children (essentially alone) and taking care of the business of the farm. Not only did their lands survive, they thrived under her watch, as did their children—the original “Lean In” superstar. She and John exchanged over 1,100 letters in their lifetime, and although she did not always agree with her husband, they often were of the same mind and her opinion greatly influenced outcome. While John was helping reform the government, she reminded him, “I desire you would remember the ladies…Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands…all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” After surviving the war, disease, and the death of a child alone, Abigail didn’t hesitate to remind him that she and many other women had managed, and done so independently of their husbands.
Although I have a particular fondness for those three ladies, I devoured any book about women throughout history, any time and any place. Women on the frontier, Indian princesses, pilgrims, Japanese geishas, Edwardian mistresses, African warriors, French resistance fighters; you name it, I’ve probably read about a woman who lived in that time, in that place. It reflects the experiences of all types of women spanning culture and religion and allows me to learn about the intersectional histories of my gender while also inspiring empathy and consciousness of the world that I live in, that they helped to create. Subconsciously, they were teaching me feminist values of equality and strength. Consciously, they have me asking myself “If they could that then, what can’t I do now?”
Featured image of Katherine of Aragon via The Guardian.