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Bad Girls Of History, How Wicked Were They?

Mar 14, 2012
Originally published on March 22, 2012 4:29 pm

With great power comes not-so-great nicknames. At least, that was the case for some of the most notorious queens and female rulers in history:

Egypt's Cleopatra: "Serpent of the Nile."

Rome's Agrippina: "Atrocious and Ferocious."

England's Mary Tudor: "Bloody Mary."

France's Catherine de Medici: "The Black Queen."

France's Marie Antoinette: "Madame Deficit."

China's Cixi: "The Dragon Empress."

But did these women deserve their nicknames? Were they judged differently because of when they lived? Were they condemned for traits that were excused — or even praised — in powerful men?

These questions are raised in The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames, a book collection aimed at children ages 9 to 13. The collection is edited and published by Shirin Yim Bridges.

"If a man is powerful and if he has affected history, we believe that our children should learn about him. But women who are powerful and have affected history, their stories don't get told because they weren't good enough," Bridges tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

The series begins with Cleopatra, who sought to make Egypt a global power. She became enormously wealthy and had an extravagant collection of jewels. Rumors circulated that she would sometimes dissolve prize pearls in vinegar, just because she could afford to. Cleopatra encouraged her followers to view her as the embodiment of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Though she was not considered a great beauty in her time, Cleopatra was so intelligent and charming, that she beguiled two of the most powerful men of her era: Rome's Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. At one point, Cleopatra eventually expanded her control to cover almost the entire eastern Mediterranean coast.

"At the same time, she condoned at the very least, if not encouraged or facilitated or even maybe connived, to have two of her brothers and one of her sisters murdered," says Bridges, "which in our day and age, we would say is a very dastardly thing."

Atrocious And Ferocious

The one dastardly dame whom Bridges wrote about for the series herself is Agrippina. The Roman empress had connections to a series of powerful men in the empire. Her brother Caligula, her husband (and uncle) Claudius, and her son Nero all ruled Rome during her lifetime. Agrippina was scorned as haughty and ruthless, and was suspected of killing political rivals, people whom she envied and even her husband, Emperor Claudius.

"Finding her humanity was difficult. There's not that much ... that had actually survived about her, and what was written was written by very hostile witnesses," Bridges says. "But there are small details that I find in this woman who was formidable — very admirable."

As Bridges tells the story, Agrippina's son Nero tried to kill her by having her boat capsized at sea, but Agrippina survived and swam to shore. When Nero then sent assassins to her home, Agrippina chose to face them alone rather than encouraging her slaves to fight to save her.

"And that to me is an immense human moment," Bridges says. "So anything else that you want to say about this woman, you cannot say that she did not have courage."

Winners Write History

Bridges says that many of these women were condemned because they ended up on the wrong side of history. She points to another star of the book series, Mary Tudor. Known as "Bloody Mary," she ruled England at a time of religious strife between Catholics and Protestants. Queen Mary believed Catholicism was the one true faith and wanted it to be religion of the nation. During her reign, she had hundreds of Protestants burned at the stake.

Her sister and successor, Elizabeth, had hundreds of Catholics executed, yet she's known in history as "Good Queen Bess." Bridges says that was because Elizabeth was a Protestant queen, and the Protestants eventually triumphed. England remains a Protestant country.

Bridges cites Mary Tudor and the other women profiled in the series when she tells schoolchildren to remember that the "winners" become the authors of history.

"So bring that knowledge with you when you read these books," she says, "and start to question: Is there more that we can discover here rather than just staying with the surface stereotype?"

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share my thoughts in my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we turn to the latest in our series for Women's History Month. As women around the world are rethinking and rewriting their own stories, we decided we wanted to dig into some biographies of notable women to see how these stories reflect those changes.

So we're hearing about divas of all sorts. Today, we speak about leaders of nations, leaders who were not exactly known as exemplars of sugar and spice and everything nice. Women like Cleopatra, who was called Serpent of the Nile, or Mary Tudor, known to history as Bloody Mary, the first queen to rule England. They are featured in a book series aimed at tween girls. It's called "The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames" and the books profile six women who earned both great power and great notoriety, some might say infamy.

Here to tell us more is Shirin Yim Bridges. She is the editor and publisher of the series. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHIRIN YIM BRIDGES: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: I should note that this is actually your second book series aimed at tween girls, although I think others will enjoy them other than tween girls. The first was called "The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Real Princesses" that was published in 2010.

Could you first tell us how you got the idea and, second, tell us how that led to "Dastardly Dames?"

BRIDGES: Well, the idea actually came when I saw my niece, Tegan(ph), who was about eight years old at the time, getting really fascinated by the Disney princesses. And I have a bit of an issue with some of the messages that those fairy tales tell young girls. It's about being pretty and sitting around waiting for a prince and then their prince will come and happiness comes after that.

So I said to Tegan, did you know that, in history, in real life, there have been lots of princesses who did great things? Didn't sit around waiting for a prince, but actually went out and changed their own lives and changed history. And she didn't know, so we went looking for these books and I was very surprised to find that these stories weren't being told to children.

So I was already a children's author at that time and so I decided I would have to write these stories, so that's how the first series came about.

MARTIN: So how did that lead to "Dastardly Dames?" Because when I think about kind of the biographies that people generally kind of seek out, particularly for younger children, you know, you think heroes and sheroes, the heroic, not too terribly morally complicated is generally the rule, right? And that's not them.

BRIDGES: No, no. The "Dastardly Dames" also came out of me observing Tegan because, as she got a little older, she was very fascinated by darker, more macabre things and I think that's a general trend. That's why "Twilight" and all these vampires and werewolves are so popular. And I thought, if you could harness that fascination and turn it into a power for the good, then you'd really have something going here.

And they're so complex - these women. They lived in such challenging times and they made such unexpected decisions and all of them raise a very interesting question as to whether they would have been judged differently at a different time in history if a couple of different factors had gone different ways or if they had been men.

MARTIN: There's been a lot of discussion about whether literature aimed at kids is too macabre, too involved with kind of difficult themes and I think, you know, you make the point that they're there, anyway, number one. And, number two, a lot of this is history.

Now, this is not history, but we'll start with Cleopatra just because that's where your series starts and, just to get a sense of how she is remembered, I want to play a clip. Now - OK. I know this is not history. This is the movies, but this is what we have. The 1963 film with, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, the legend, and Rex Harrison playing Julius Caesar and here it is.


ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (as Cleopatra) I have you now, Caesar. Besides, there are my armies and the simple fact that no mortal hand can destroy me.

REX HARRISON: (as Julius Caesar) Ah, yes. I seem to recall some mention of an obsession you have about your divinity. Isis, is it not?

TAYLOR: (as Cleopatra) I shall have to insist that you mind what you say. I am Isis. I am worshipped by millions who believe it.

MARTIN: First of all, one of the points that you make in the book is that the real Cleopatra did not look like Elizabeth Taylor and the book kind of gives the historical narrative (unintelligible), but you also raise questions of: Did she really do this? What's the evidence and why did she think she had to do this? How did you settle on that approach?

BRIDGES: We wanted to present these women as complex, three-dimensional characters to give some balance to the stereotypes that are often out there, but also not to shy away or be afraid of the fact that they did make some very unpopular or immoral decisions. That was a general editorial approach that we took.

MARTIN: But do you want - are you trying to excuse them in a way from some of their nastier, truly dastardly deeds? Because some of them really are dastardly...


MARTIN: ...deeds.

BRIDGES: No. I don't think that it's an apology either. You know, I don't think we're trying to excuse them and recently don't condone a lot of things that they did. In fact, we get asked often why Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette are included in our series because they've been so rehabilitated lately that there are people out there who say why is Cleopatra a dastardly dame. She was a great queen. And our answer is that she was a great queen. She was a powerful queen, very intelligent woman, obviously so intellectually stimulating that she had two of the most powerful men of the time kind of fall at her feet without being a great beauty, as you noted. But at the same time, she condoned at the very least, if not encouraged or facilitated or even maybe connived to have to of her brothers and one of her sisters murdered, which in our day and age we would say is a very dastardly thing. Although, it was noted by Plutarch, the historian at the time, that all the best families did it.


MARTIN: Oh, my.

BRIDGES: I think it's a wonderful quote. But my basic stance on this also is that when we started talking about doing the "Dastardly Dames," we had a lot of people say well, are you sure you want to do that? These aren't good role models. Why would you do that? And it kind of got all my feathers all roughed up because I thought we never ask this question about men. We never debate whether it's important to teach our children about powerful men even if those powerful men were not saintly.

You know, if a man is powerful and if he has affected history, we believe that our children should learn about him. But women who are powerful and have affected history, their stories don't get told because they weren't good enough. And I think that that's first of all unfair and second of all it gives children who are growing up nowadays a very biased view of what has been happening in history.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having the latest in our series of conversations acknowledging Women's History Month. This month we decided to dig into biographies of notable women, and we decided to look at a series of books for tweens that profile some of history's most notorious and powerful women.

We're speaking with Shirin Yim Bridges, the editor and publisher of the collection. In this collection, one of the things that tickled me a little bit is that you wrote one of the books yourself. It was "Agrippina,"" the Roman empress who was the mother of one of the empire's most notorious rulers, Nero. And I have it that Agrippina was so unloved that nobody else wanted to write the biography, so it fell to you.


MARTIN: Her nickname was atrocious and ferocious. So tell us a little bit about her. She's one of the people who I think whose name is probably less well-known unless you've studied the classics.

BRIDGES: Yes. And once again, you know, sometimes you wonder why because here's this woman, she was the sister of Caligula - very, very well-known name, the wife of Claudius - again, very well-known, mother of Nero - again, really well-known. And then greatly hated in her time because she was so powerful and had so much influence over these men and had so much to do with the running of the state.

And we're talking about the early Roman Empire, which is a period of history that is on every curriculum and very well studied and yet we do not know her name. I think that that's such a travesty. So she did actually fall to me because when the authors were picking which topics they would most prefer to write nobody picked poor Agrippina.

But in a way I'm really glad that she did. First of all, I love Roman history. And the other thing is that she was a challenge because finding her humanity was difficult. There's not that much that extant that has actually survived about her. And what was written was written by very hostile witnesses. But there are small details that I find in this woman who is formidable, very admirable.

Towards the end of the story you'll find that Nero, her son, tries to kill her, and he has her capsized at sea in a boat. And so you have to imagine that, you know, in the first century A.D. this woman in multiple layers - if you read the book you'll find out exactly how she was dressed - she managed somehow to swim all the way to shore. And then having gotten to shore she goes home and she has a few choices now. She can have her servants and her slaves, you know, she's a very wealthy woman living in a villa with lots of staff, she can have them protect her. She can call out the Praetorian Guards who are loyal to her because she is the daughter of their great hero Germanicus. She didn't do that either. You know, she sent them away from the villa because she knew that the second attack was coming and rather than put her people in harm's way, she chose to face her murderers alone. And that to me is an immense human moment. So anything else that you want to say about this woman you cannot say that she did not have courage.

MARTIN: One of the points that the authors make in a number of these books is how these women, even if they had terrible reputations in the spotlight of history, tried to open up trade routes, tried to wield their power in different ways, or wielded their power in the same way that men did, in which eliminating one's enemies was a very common and understood political tactic. So as we said, we don't have time to talk about all of them, but is there one aside from Agrippina who is your favorite or who particularly intrigued you that you want to make sure you tell us about?

BRIDGES: Well, I am a huge fan of Tudor history. And so I would have to say Mary Tudor, who's called Bloody Mary. And the reason why she I think is also kind of iconic for this series is that, you know, the title of every single book includes a nickname that that woman was given by her contemporaries and I think each book tries to raise the question: Was that nickname fair? And in Mary Tudor's case, I think it's especially enlightening, that she was called Bloody Mary, and she was called Bloody Mary because in a time of religious strife she sent about 300 Protestants to the stake. She burnt them. And that is a bloody and a dastardly thing.

So you think, OK, she deserves Bloody Mary. But then you look at it from a different perspective and you think that her sister killed nearly as many for the exact same reasons and she was called Good Queen Bess. Then you have to take a step back and then you think why is one sister Bloody Mary and the other one Good Queen Bess? Well, you know, Bess won. Bess was on the side of the Protestants, England to this day as a Protestant country. If it had reverted to Catholicism I'm willing to lay down money that the nicknames might have swapped.

And then you have to look at dad, you know, their father was Henry VIII, who by some accounts killed as many as 70,000 and yet his nickname is Great Harry. And so then you have to ask well, now does the gender bias also play in there? It's really interesting and I think though what I say to the kids all the time when I visit them in schools is that as someone who writes history books, I want you to know that history books are written by one person, usually by the winner. So bring that knowledge with you when you read these books and start to question is there more that we can discover here, rather than just staying with the surface stereotype?

MARTIN: Shirin Yim Bridges is the editor and publisher most recently of the "The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames," and she was kind enough to join us from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco.

Happy Women's History Month to you, and thank you so much for joining us.

BRIDGES: Thank you very much Michel, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.