Archive for the ‘Notable women of history’ Category

Statue of Jeanne Mance in front of the Hotel Dieu in Montreal

Jeanne Mance was one of the founders of Montreal. A devout Christian, she moved from looking after the sick in France to founding a hospital in Montreal, as well as raising money from the cream of French society to continue the project of healing the sick and developing the tiny French outpost of Ville Marie into the town (and later the city) of Montreal.

Jeanne Mance was born in 1606 in rural France, the second of 12 children of a haut bourgeois family. After seeing her brothers and sisters into adulthood, she moved smoothly into religious service, nursing the victims of the 30 years war and the plague that killed nearly half the people of her town. Through a cousin, she learned of the New France settlement in what is now Canada, and was inspired. After spending some time in Paris trying to work out a way into the religious groups who were moving to New France, she met Angélique de Bullion, a rich woman who wanted to provide money found a hospital in New France, if Jeanne would found it for her.

So Mance, with her 40,000 livres, joined the founders of Ville Marie (now Montreal) and sailed to Quebec in 1641. They arrived too late in the year to start the settlement, so after wintering in Quebec, they sailed down to Montreal island the following spring. Mance had wanted to go and work directly with the Huron, the local tribe, to convert them to Christianity and heal the sick, but because of her promise to Angélique de Bullion, she stayed in Ville Marie and built a hospital.

This was at the beginning of the Iroquois wars – the Iroquois were an Indian nation east and south of Montreal, who were allied with the British. The Huron, who were north and west of Montreal, were allied with the French. So the new settlers of Ville Marie (which was the border at this stage) were frequent victims of Iriquois attacks, meaning that Mance had plenty to do in her new hospital.

Once she had set things going, she returned to France to look after the funding and political side of things. She did this three times altogether, each time bringing back more money from the various sponsors, and also (on her second trip) bringing back more staff with her. She lent the money to the Ville Marie township at least once, as they needed it to keep the township going, and also dealt with many other issues as part of her role as leader of her hospital.

The weather of Montreal was (and is) harsh – much harsher for a population that were living in log cabins. The Iroquois were always close, and frequently attacked, leading to danger for the hospital, as well as complex injuries to deal with. Her second trip to France was partly a personal one – Mance had broken her arm badly and was unable to use it – she was hoping (unsuccessfully) for some better medical care there. And one of the biggest challenges she had to face was a society that wasn’t especially used to women in leadership roles, even religious ones.

Nevertheless, by the time she died, Mance had seen her hospital, and her town, well established. Today she is well remembered for her impact on the city – the Montreal musuem of archeology and history describes her as Montreal’s cofounder.

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Dona Catalina de Erauso was also known as the Nun Lieutenant. She was born in 16th century Spain, and destined by her family for a nunnery. But she rebelled, and escaped at the age of 15 for a life of adventure. She managed to get to South America, where she became a soldier in the Spanish Military, where she was very successful until, after one too many brawls, she confessed her secret on her (she supposed) deathbed. The catholic church accepted her back into the convent (as she was still technically a virgin, despite many affairs with women), until she got sick of the convent life, and went back to adventuring in Spain.

She was born in San Sebastian, Spain, in 1592. She was part of a big family, and a younger daughter, so at the age of 4 she was sent to a nunnery. But at the age of 15, just as she was about to take her vows, she rebelled and escaped. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and decided to seek her fortune. This was the time when Spain was conquering South America. There were enormous riches to be had there for an adventurer. So she became a cabin boy for a ship bound for the Indes, jumped ship in Panama, and ended up in Peru.

In Peru she found a job as a store manager. In the first of many ambiguous sexual encounters, she duelled with a relative of her employer, and as a solution, her employer suggested she marry his mistress (which would have kept both of them handily available for him). But she escaped to Lima where another encounter with a pretty woman led to trouble that Dona Catalina had to escape from quickly.

Luckily, the indigenous population in Chile was revolting, so the Spaniards needed soldiers. Dona Catalina enlisted, becoming a second Lieutenant and distinguishing herself in battle. She met up with one of her brothers there (who didn’t recognise her) and was generally very successful. Sadly though, after three years, she accidentally killed that brother in a duel. They were both seconds to others, and jumped into the fight on opposite sides when the fight started getting dangerous.

Dona Catalina was so devastated that she had killed her brother that she deserted the Army and wandered through the Andes from town to town, gambling, picking fights, and generally gaining a reputation as a serious outlaw. In Cuzco, getting into yet another brawl, she was seriously injured, and convinced she was dying. After receiving the Last Rites, she confessed her gender, and then astonishingly, recovered.

She fled, pursued both for being an outlaw, and for being a woman, until she surrendered to a local Bishop. He had her examined by midwives, who pronounced her both female, and a virgin, so she was placed back in a convent in Lima. Unfortunately communications were better than you might expect in the 17th century, and word came from Spain that she had never actually taken her vows as a nun, so she was tossed out of the convent.

She decided that Spain might be a better place for her, so set out for Spain, to be astonished by crowds hailing her everywhere she went. After a few false starts, she managed to get to Rome to appeal to the Pope for dispensation to continue dressing as a man, and to appeal to the King of Spain for a pension for her military service. Both appeals were successful, and she lived out her life back in South America (in New Mexico) as a mule driver, dying in 1650 at the age of 58.

Her memoirs were published in 1829 (allegedly written in 1626) and translated into English in 1908, with substantial corroborating documentation proving beyond doubt that she did really exist and that many of the bizarre things she claimed did really happen.

She was clearly a transvestite, and had many affairs with many willing women. But it is easy from this historical distance to interpret her life in ways that reflect your own view of a standard life for a woman back then. The most astonishing thing that Dona Catalina did was to live her own life, without regard for the box that women were put in at the time. She seems to have rebelled at every aspect of that box that was possible – dress, gender appearance, sexual relationships, violence, power, independence, religious freedom…

An amazing person, who took her own course through life, and enjoyed the adventure.


Note on pronouns: Different sources on Dona Catalina de Erauso use different pronouns. I have chosen to use the feminine: “she/her” despite the fact that she spent most of her life as a man.

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Jane Jacobs was a writer and activist primarily on urban planning, the economics of cities, and decay. She moved to New York from Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, and lived there for more than thirty years before moving to Toronto, Canada. She wanted to be known as an economic theorist on cities, but she is best known for two intertwined pieces of activism and writing; she was the major organiser of a campaign to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway through New York’s downtown in the 1960s, and campaigned against many other urban improvements in the area, and she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a polemic disagreeing with most of the major urban theorists of the time (my review is here).

Jacobs was born in Pennsylvania in 1916 and after finishing school she moved to New York, where she worked as a writer and stenographer, both freelance and for trade journals, often writing stories about various districts of New York and what made them tick. She married in 1944, and had three children. Although she didn’t go to university in a formal sense, she spent two years studying an eclectic mix of courses at Columbia University. She lived in Greenwich Village in New York, and parlayed that experience, plus her wide experience of the districts of New York from her writing career into a wide ranging book about urban planning – the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

This was not only a withering critique of current planning techniques, but proposed radically different ideas for how cities should be rebuilt. She was in favour of diversity, dynamism and mixture – arguing that neighbourhoods worked best when they were a mix of rich and poor, residents and businesses, cultural and economic. Her major ideas were:

Her major theses were that for a city to work:

  • A street or district must serve several primary functions.
  • Blocks must be short.
  • Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals.
  • Population must be dense

Urban planning in cities has never been the same.

Reading the book now, fifty years later, many of her ideas seem obvious, especially if you have lived in a city planned by someone who has read her work. But at the time they were incredibly radical, and were harshly criticized, particularly by the university educated men who were responsible for the urban planning of New York at the time. The idea that diversity improves a city and makes it safer was radical then, and still radical now, there are always residents trying to move other users of the city out of their neighbourhoods, particularly as they gentrify.

She wrote several other books about the economy of cities, but her best known book, because it changed the paradigm, was her first. She put all her principles into action by campaigning against many proposed improvements to her own and other parts of New York – in a documentary about New York on PBS, one episode of 14 was devoted to her battles with Robert Moses with Jacobs campaigning for neighborhoods to stay as they were and not to be replaced by expressways and Le Corboisier style apartment blocks.

She moved on to Toronto in the late 70s, when she was worried that her sons would be drafted, and immediately became a major campaigner in city planning there. But her influence in New York, and many other cities lived on, as the power of community became something recognised as a force for change in city planning.

It is rare for a thinker in any field to change it singlehandedly as much as she did.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist, novelist and lecturer for social reform in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is most famous today for her novella The Yellow Wallpaper, a semi-autobiographical work she wrote after a bout of post-partum psychosis.

Gilman was born in 1860, in Connecticut to a family which was impoverished by her father leaving when she was five. She grew up moving around (she attended 7 different schools) and with several aunts (including Harriet Beecher Stowe) at various times, as her mother could not support the family. She spent a lot of time reading in public libraries, so although her formal education was fairly rudimentary, she had read widely and had great general knowledge by the time she reached adulthood.

She became an artist, and supported herself by designing trade cards, and married a fellow artist, Charles Walter Stetson, in 1884, despite not being sure if he was right for her. She had a daughter, Katherine, the year after, and suffered serious post partum psychosis, for which doctor’s treatment was “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time… Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”. By 1888, she and Charles had both decided that they must separate, for the sake of Charlotte’s mental health, and Charlotte moved to California with her daughter.

In California, she became very active in feminist and reformist organisations, writing and editing for several of them. In 1890, she had a very successful year, writing The Yellow Wallpaper, as well as fifteen other works, a mixture of poetry, prose, fiction and non fiction.

As an example of living by her feminist principles, in 1894 Charlotte sent her (now 9 year old) daughter to live with her father, and his new wife (a good friend of Charlotte’s). She believed that it was important for both father and daughter to know each other.

By this time, Charlotte was becoming an important feminist and reformer. She was a successful speechmaker, who earned her living making speeches, as well as a poet, and novelist. She represented California at the national Suffrage convention, and the International Socialist and Labour congress in Great Britain. She began writing on economics, and women, and her book Women and Economics propelled her into the international spotlight. In it and its successor The Home: its work and Influence, she argued that the domestic environment oppressed women through the patriarchal beliefs upheld by society. Gilman argued that male aggressiveness and maternal roles for women were artificial and no longer necessary for survival in post-prehistoric times. She wrote, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver”.

She moved back east to New York, in 1893, and in 1900 married her cousin, Houghton Gilman, and their marriage seems to have been a happy one. He died in 1922, suddenly, and she moved back to California to be near her daughter. In 1932, at the age of 72, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 1935 she took her own life using an overdose of chloroform, choosing “chloroform over cancer” as she wrote in her suicide note.

Reading the issues that she campaigned about and wrote about – the assigning of gender roles through toys early in a child’s life, the need for reform of the home to enable women to live equal lives with men, and the need for more equal relationships between men and women to make for happy marriages. It seems sad that today she is remembered mostly for The Yellow Wallpaper when she had so much more to say.


This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world.  Unusually, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was actually a feminist – most of the others have been notable for ways in which they stepped outside their assigned gender roles in times when that was very difficult. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.

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Gráinne Ní Mháille, or Grace O’Malley, known in Irish folklore as Granuaile, was chieftain of the  Ó Máille clan of the west of Ireland in the 16th century, and described by some as a pirate queen.  In her long life, she was the effective head of different Irish clans, the O’Flaherty and O’Malley clans, had her own force of mercenaries, and met with Queen Elizabeth of England in an effort to persuade the English to back off on their creeping takeover of Ireland.

Clare Island, and the west coast of Ireland, Granuaile's stronghold

Granuaile was born in 1530, the only child of the head of the O’Malley clan and his wife, from the west of Ireland. The clan was a seafaring one, and controlled land in what is now County Mayo with a string of castles facing the sea.  The family taxed anyone who fished in their waters, and traded by sea around the region (as far away as Spain). When Granuaile begged her father to go on one of his expeditions, he refused her, saying that women didn’t belong on ships as their long hair got in the way. She took him at his word, and cut her hair short, leading to her lifetime nickname of Granuaile – Grace the cropped (or bald).

She married the heir to the O’Flaherty clan, Donal, and had three children with him. His nickname was Donal of the battle, and he spent a lot of their marriage fighting nearby clans, notably the Joyces. After he died in yet another battle, she captured his castle back from the Joyces, and then set up her headquarters on Clare Island, off the west coast of Ireland, with many of the O’Flaherty followers, who were very taken with her leadership. At this time she expanded the family business from taxing fisherman to taxing anyone plying the waters that they regarded as their own. Any ships would be stopped and boarded, and asked for a share of the cargo in return for safe passage to Galway. Resistance was met with violence, as they took their tribute by force, and then vanished into the many sheltered bays in the area.

The line between piracy and toll is a grey one; most histories would say that she passed it. Over time, she gradually expanded her operations up and down the west coast of Ireland, and onto land as well, attacking castles of nearby clans, in order to add to her holdings. Over time, she became very wealthy and powerful, and a focal point for resistance to the gradually increasing attention of the English lords, who were trying to assert their authority.

She then married a second time, 20 years after her first marriage, to Richard Bourke, an important scion of the Bourke clan, who were nominally the overlords of the O’Malleys. The marriage was said to be so that Granuaile could expand her prestige and holdings; with the marriage she gained a castle, Rockfleet castle, as well as more harbours that would be useful to her fleet of ships. By this time, she was already powerful in her own right, and some stories suggest that the marriage only lasted a year; long enough for O’Malley to have another child, and to annex Rockfleet castle for good.

During this time, the English Tudors were gradually strengthening their hold on Ireland. Richard Bingham was the Lord President of Connacht, with the task of increasing control over the local lords that had effectively been self-governing up till now. After much skirmishing (which included Granuiale’s castle being besieged by the English, with Granuiale reportedly throwing boiling oil down at the besiegers), Bingham captured two of Granuiale’s sons, and her half brother. Granuiale sailed to England, and petitioned Queen Elizabeth for their release, as well as the removal of Richard Bingham and a number of other demands. The two Queens met (with Latin their only common language) and Queen Elizabeth liked Granuaile so much that she acceded to most of the requests, despite Richard Bingham declaring that she was “nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years”. 

Granuiale is not mentioned in many of the official histories of Ireland (she doesn’t appear in the Richard Bingham biography on wikipedia, for example) which must be partly her piracy, as well as her gender. But she is the stuff of legend, and the subject of many songs and stories, and was a force to be reckoned with for anyone trying to sail the seas of Ireland while she ruled them. Her castle at Rockfleet can be visited (although we didn’t manage it, too far from our very rural abode).

Thanks to John for suggesting Granuiale for this series.

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Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir* was the most travelled woman in the middle ages. Born in Iceland around the year 980, she travelled to Greenland, then on to North America, where she had a son, and then back to Greenland with her husband and son. Not content with that, she decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, where she met the Pope, before retiring to the church to live as a nun.

Gudridur was born in Iceland, the daughter of Icelandic farmers. One of her grandmothers was a slave, quite probably captured from Ireland or Scotland, as many of the first female settlers of Iceland were. When her father refused her permission to marry a local slave, she travelled instead with her father to Greenland, to accompany Erik the Red, who had settled there. She married one of Erik the Red’s sons, Thorstein. She and her husband made an expedition to North America, where her husband’s brother, Leif Eriksson had visited and attempted to settle some years before, in what is now regarded as the first visit from a European to North America. Her husband Thorstein died on the return journey to Greenland.

Gudridur stayed in Greenland, and married again, this time a merchant named Thorfinnr Karlsefni. In 1010, they led another expedition to North America, which they called Vinland, with three ships and 160 settlers. While they were in North America, Gudridur gave birth to a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson, who is the first European known to have been born in the the Americas. They returned to Greenland after two years, finding themselves outnumbered, and unsafe, because of the large groups of native inhabitants. Eventually, Gudridur’s husband died and her son inherited the farm.

This was around the time that both Iceland and Greenland became Christian, and presumably with the fervour of a new convert, Gudridur decided to go on a pilgrimage, once her son married. She travelled to Rome, where she met the Pope, and then came back to Greenland to the church her son had built for her on the family estate. She became a nun, and died there in Greenland.

All of this information comes from the Greenland saga, recorded in the 14th century by an anonymous scribe. She was described as stunningly beautiful and gracious in manners, as well as well liked by everyone.

It seems fairly likely that she was the most travelled woman at that time, and probably for quite a while afterwards. The expedition to Rome was probably not as physically dangerous as the sea voyage to the unknown North America, but far from easy from far away Greenland.

*throughout this post I have used anglicised spellings. Icelandic has several letters that are not used in English, and Gudridur’s name is correctly spelled Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir.


This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.


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Émilie du Châtelet was a mathematician and physicist who lived in France in the Age of Enlightenment. She predicted that the spectrum of light extended past the visible and proposed an experiment to prove it. She reviewed the available evidence (mathematical and experimental) on kinetic energy and proved correctly that the energy of a moving body is proportional to the square of its velocity (not the velocity, as Newton proposed). She translated Newton’s masterwork, the Principia Mathematica from Latin into French, with commentary and extra mathematical derivations of key formulae, and her version is still the standard French version used today.

Émilie du Châtelet was born in 1706 into a minor noble family. Her father was the Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to King Louis XIV, and held a salon for intellectuals in Paris. Her family recognised her early brilliance, and unusually for the time, she was educated widely. By the age of 12, she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German, and was being educated in philosophy, science and mathematics.

In a standard move for the times, at 19 her marriage was arranged to a 30 year old aristocrat, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. She had three children, and after the third was born, resumed her mathematical studies, studying algebra and calculus with Moreau de Maupertuis and Alexis Clairaut.

The relationship which did most for her scientific studies, but also has tended to hide her from history, was her relationship with Voltaire. They met when she was 22, but began a close relationship when she was 26, in 1733. De Châtelet invited Voltaire to come and live with her and her husband on their country estate in Cirey-sur-Blaise, in North eastern France. They lived and worked there together for fifteen years, working on mathematics and physics together, and editing each others’ publications. Voltaire declared in a letter to his friend King Frederick II of Prussia that du Châtelet was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.

Her first major work was on heat on light, in 1737. She published a paper on the nature of light and heat in which she predicted the existence of infrared radiation beyond the visible spectrum of light. Three years later, she published a major book on Physics, called Institutions de Physique,  which was ostensibly a review of the major ideas of Physics at the time for a teenager, but was more of a synthesis of the state of knowledge at the time, arguing strongly for Newton’s theories, and explaining them and comparing them with the latest ideas from the continent.

In this book, she looked hard at the energy of moving bodies, and examined the latest theories, before coming down on the side of energy being proportional to the square of velocity. It wasn’t unusual to have a view on the question, but what du Châtelet did was systematically investigate all the theoretical and experimental evidence to reach the correct conclusion.

Her masterwork, which she is most recognised for, was her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. She worked systematically to understand the whole of Newton’s ideas, providing explanations and side notes as well as the basic translations.

She had already started work on the translation, working with Voltaire, when she became pregnant, at the age of 42, with a new lover, poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. She was very worried about the pregnancy at her age, and wrote to a friend that she did not expect to survive the birth. So she worked systematically at her translation, rising early, and doing very little else until the end of her pregnancy.

She gave birth to a daughter in 1749, at the age of 42, and died five days later, as she feared. Her daughter  died around 18 months later.

During her life Émilie du Châtelet had quite a number of lovers, including the most famous, Voltaire. But it is clear that her first love was science, and she was a key player in the development of theories of energy and motion during the Age of Enlightenment.


This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.

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Marguerite de Navarre was an author and patron of humanists and reformers. She was described by romance scholar Samuel Putnam as the “first modern woman”.

Marguerite was born in 1492, the daughter (and first child) of the Count of Angoulême and Louise, the daughter of the Duke of Savoy. Her father was the heir presumptive of France, assuming a number of other heirs died without issue, and four years later, when her father died, her younger brother Francis became, in turn, heir presumptive to the French throne. Marguerite’s mother, who was only 19 when her husband died, was responsible for the education of her two children. Louise was very well educated, and made sure both her children were educated too. Marguerite was educated with the aim of making her a patron of the Arts, the Maecenas to the learned ones of her brother’s Kingdom.

When she was 17, she was married off to Charles IV of Alençon, who was illiterate, and largely regarded as a dolt. That marriage lasted until she was widowed at 33. Her second marriage followed soon after, to the King of Navarre, with whom she had two children, a girl who lived to adulthood, and a boy who died in infancy.  Six years after her first marriage, in 1515, her brother Francis became King of France, Francis I. She joined him at Court and was a major presence at court, a patron of the Arts, and increasingly interested in religion. She and her brother persuaded Leonardo da Vinci to move to France in 1515, and he died at their chateau, in Amboise, in 1519. When her brother King Francis I lost a war with Spain in 1525, and was captured, she went to Madrid to negotiate his release, and a Treaty with Spain.

Her biggest influence, eventually, was spiritual. In 1521, she began to correspondance with Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, who introduced her to the evangelist movement. She corresponded with many humanists and reformers throughout Europe.  Erasmus wrote to her, saying,

“For a long time I have cherished all the many excellent gifts that God bestowed upon you; prudence worthy of a philosopher; chastity; moderation; piety; an invincible strength of soul, and a marvelous contempt for all the vanities of this world. Who could keep from admiring, in a great king’s sister, such qualities as these, so rare even among the priests and monks?”

She wrote two great works. The first was the Heptameron, a collection of short stories about life, love, fidelity and romance. It was based on the structure of the Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio.  In Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptameron and Early Modern Culture, edited by John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley, the authors noted:

The stories and discussions of the Heptameron depict confrontations based on, among other elements, gender. Contradictory suppositions about women emerge repeatedly from the stories and discussions as the devisants or fictional storytellers–five men and five women–delineate attitudes both feminist and misogynist. At the same time, similarly conflicting notions about men emerge to be debated. Whether echoing the late medievalquerelle des femmes, the contemporary querelle des amyes, the evolving currents of Neoplatonism and Petrarchism, or the attitudes toward sexual roles put forth in Reformation polemics, deeply felt beliefs about gender inform and animate the Heptameron.

While the Heptameron was well received, her more influential work was Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, or the Mirror of the Sinful Soul, which espoused evangelical ideas and combined them with a more personal relationship with God. Some speculated that it had been inspired by her grief on the death of her infant son. The French Evangelical movement did not go as far as the German Protestants, rather it focused on reforming the church’s many excesses, and translating the Bible into the Vernacular. Throughout her life, while her level of public campaigning for the Evangelical movement waxed and waned, Marguerite was a firm supporter of the French evangelical movement.She protected those who were accused of heresy, helping some to escape France into her own more separate territory of Navarre.One of the most famous of those rescued was John Calvin. As a result, her reputation after her death was a little suspect, with many Catholics arguing that she too, had been a heretic.










There are some interesting English history links with Marguerite de Navarre also. She may well have known Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife, who had been lady-in-waiting to her brother Francis’ Queen, Claud). It is very likely that some of Anne Boleyn’s protestant views were formed at the French Court where Marguerite de Navarre was a strong influence. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I), at the age of 12, translated Marguerite’s most famous poem into English as a present for her stepmother Katherine Parr. And Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s third wife)’s nieces wrote an emconium, or tributary poem, to Marguerite de Navarre after she died, which their tutor published. It was the first published work by English women, and was translated into a number of languages by other poets. 


As an interesting aside, I came across Marguerite while watching the Tudors series, which has been notable for how much I have learned about English history, not from the series itself, but because each time Mr Penguin and I watch an episode we are compelled to look up what really happened. She was portrayed in that series as merely one of a succession of Henry VIII’s mistresses, which has no foundation in fact whatsoever.

In reality, Marguerite de Navarre played a major part in shaping the intellectual life of her part of the world, and helped religious tolerance to flourish in the French court, at least in her own lifetime.



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Branca Edmee Marques was a portuguese scientist, who studied and worked with Marie Curie. She was born in Lisbon in 1899, and studied chemistry at the University of Lisbon. In 1925 after completing her degree, she was invited to be an Assistant by the Chemistry Professor. He was concerned about whether she would maintain discipline in her classes, being female, but she must have succeeded as in 1930 she was awarded a scholarship to study with Marie Curie at the Sorbonne, in Paris.

Marie Curie was by then very famous, having won two Nobel Prizes. Curie liked her work so much that she gave her one of her most interesting research projects to do, and wrote a letter to the Portuguese government asking them to renew her research grant.

Unfortunately the combination of Marques being a woman, and the Portuguese government being in a state of flux (transforming from military to civilian dictatorship) meant that her grant wasn’t renewed. Curie managed to finagle a continuing scholarship for her anyway, and her doctorate on “new research on the fragmentation of barium salts” was awarded with the highest possible rating of tres honorable. In 1936, the Portuguese Universities recognized the degree, and awarded her an equivalent doctorate.

On returning home, however, she was unable to get an appropriate post at University. This, from all my sources, does appear to be fairly simple sexism, even if the lack of financial support in France might not have been. Instead, she lectured and started up the Laboratory of Radiochemistry and only in 1942 was she awarded the title of First Assistant, which meant that the University was recognizing her contribution more significantly.

She continued to lecture and work towards building up a new department, which eventually became the Department of Radiochemistry and Nuclear Chemistry. She published regularly throughout her professional life, researching many aspects of peaceful application of nuclear technology. In 1966, her contributions were finally recognized with a full professorship at the University of Lisbon.

She died in 1986, at the age of 87.

This post is based on portuguese language sources (linked below) so anyone who can read the original portuguese, please feel free to comment if my interpretations were wrong!


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Isabela I of Castile and Leon was the Queen of the majority of what is now Spain, at the very beginning of its time as a Great Power. She is generally spoken of as one half of Isabela and Ferdinand, the Catholic monarchs of Spain. She reigned as Queen of Castile and Leon (which is the majority of what is now Spain) from 1474 until 1504. Her husband Ferdinand reigned as King of Aragon from 1479, which united most of what is now Spain under a joint head of State. Their motto was  “Tanto monta (or monta tanto), Isabel como Fernando”, “They amount to the same, Isabel and Ferdinand“.

Isabela was born from her father’s second marriage, and when she was born, was third in line to the throne of Castile, after her half brother Henry, and her younger brother Alfonso. Henry became King, and she and her brother were left in his care, by the terms of her father’s will. Henry wasn’t particularly interested in them. Rather, he was keen to have his own children succeed him to the throne. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much luck there, with no children from his first wife, and the only child from his second marriage (Joanna) being strongly rumoured to have been fathered by someone else.

So after her brother Alfonso died, Isabela was regarded by many in Spain as the most legitimate heir available. Henry tried to control her by controlling her marriage, and during a 10 year period she was betrothed to four or five different princes or Kings from the region. In the end, though, she took matters into her own hands, and arranged her own marriage with Ferdinand, who was heir to the neighbouring Kingdom of Aragon. After considerable subterfuge, they married in 1469, with Isabel sneaking out of court pretending to visit her father’s tomb, and Ferdinand disguising himself as a merchant to visit the kingdom of Castile.

Her brother did name her formally as his successor, so when he died in 1474, Isabela was theoretically Queen. A considerable faction, however, preferred her brother’s daughter Joanna, and the neighbouring King of Portugal provided considerable support for Joanna’s claim, which he backed up by marrying her himself. The resulting war lasted five years, with victory eventually going to Isabel, helped greatly by troops from her husband’s Aragon Kingdom. Once Isabela had her first son, John, in 1478, that cemented her claim, with the succession an important job for any Queen in those times.

Once she was firmly Queen, and Ferdinand had succeeded to the Aragon throne, they ruled their Kingdoms separately (there was no political union, save at the top) but jointly. Their motto, “Tanto monta (or monta tanto), Isabel como Fernando”, “They amount to the same, Isabel and Ferdinand” helped them to effectively run things in the other’s absence.

Although they didn’t make major changes to government structures, what they did do was to make the current government structures work. Isabela restored the finances of her Kingdom (Henry had sold off many estates to cement relationships at well below their true value) and abolished the key government positions who were there purely for patronage purposes, making sure that anyone who had a government position was there to do a particular job, rather than to deliver patronage and reap the benefits.

But these key changes are not what Isabela and Ferdinand are famous for. In 1492, they expelled Jews from Spain, completed their reconquest of Arabic Spain with the capture of Granada, and agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Indies (where he eventually discovered America). After the expulsion of the Jews, they ramped up the Inquisition (which they had established as a particularly Spanish organisation in 1480) and used it to ensure the orthodoxy of those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism (often with the use of torture to extract confessions).

Once their reconquest was complete, they devoted their time to setting up the Kingdom for future empire, with a series of dynastic marriages for their children, and the Inquisition devoted to making Spain a country with a single faith – Roman Catholicism. At the same time, the Spanish explorers quickly moved to exploit their discoveries in South America, and the riches that were on offer there. Their grandson, Charles V, ended up with an enormous empire, including the low countries, much of Italy, large parts of South America, as well as Spain itself.

Isabela died in 1504, leaving her husband Ferdinand as the regent for their daughter Joanna (known as Joanna the mad) and grandson Charles. The territory she brought to the marriage made her the senior partner in the joint monarchy. This article talks in feminist about how much power she actually had.

The general view is that she had the lion’s share of the power in the relationship, with the sharing of power more about the territories they controlled than the overall decisions. So Isabela, jointly with her husband Ferdinand set up Spain as a unified, well-governed, rich, Catholic country. It was ready for their grandson Charles V to transform it into one of the biggest empires the world has seen. The decisions they made improved governance, but at the same time persecuted those of their citizens who couldn’t agree with them on religion. They share the credit for the decisions that history judges them kindly on (the improvements in governance, and reduction in corruption) and the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews (1492) and Moors (1502) to bring to an end a long period of religious tolerance on the Iberian peninsula.


This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.

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