In honor of Women’s History Month, I'd like to focus on some of my favorite historical women and what made them great.
We’ve only been celebrating Women’s History Month in the United States since 1987, but women have been making history for thousands of years. These daring dames were breaking all kinds of barriers from ancient times to today, and despite their differences, they all have one thing in common: They weren’t going to let anyone dictate what it was to be a woman.
In the 11th century AD, an Italian woman named Trotula married a doctor and had two sons who also became doctors. What was cool about her was that in a time when it was not customary for women to practice medicine, except to be a midwife, she did. It was in her blood. Trotula served as a physician and professor at the Medical School in Salerno, Italy, and became the first female gynecologist. She wasn’t considered just a midwife, she was a university-trained doctor.
Her specialty was women, and she wrote two medical books: The Diseases of Women and Trotula Minor, which covered skin problems. The Diseases of Women was written to educate male doctors about the female body, including menstruation, childbirth and infections. This was a Godsend for women because, if you’ve listened to our podcast on Fertility and Ancient Birthing Practices, you’ll remember that a common way to treat vaginal infections and period pain was to shove a stick wrapped in crocodile poop, hemp, honey and corn into the vagina and leave it there for a while.
She also pioneered surgical techniques still in use today. One of the things she’s famous for is figuring out how to repair a torn perineum after childbirth, which, as any new mom who delivered naturally can attest, is a real “pain the butt.” Trotula was also the one who advised using opiates to ease pain, used hormonal treatments made from animal testicles to regulate periods and treat sterility, and told women to keep themselves clean more often in order to prevent death of both the mother and the child during childbirth. Believe it or not, until the 20th century, this was a leading cause of mother and infant death.
But she did have some unusual prescriptions, which is to be expected from this time period. For example, she was the most popular for turning women back into virgins. Let me explain. Back then, the men wanted to marry women who were still virgins, and if their virginity was in question, the girl’s family may be out of luck. So Trotula came up with a way to fix a woman’s hymen: leeches. The process was simple: The day before she was to be married, Trotula would put a leech on the broken hymen and let it go to work. It didn’t take long, but there were dangers: the leech had to be removed before it took too much of the bride’s blood, and leeches tended to wander, so you really had to keep an eye on them.
I’m half Greek. Spartan and Cretan to be exact. And being of Spartan blood, I have spent a great deal of time in my life reading about the Spartan people and their way of life, and one of the women, Cynisca, has always made me proud. She was daughter to a Spartan king and sister to another, and she was a land baroness. One of the many things I love about the Spartans is that they held women as high as men in a time when every other Greek city-state did the complete opposite. 40% of the land in Sparta was owned by women, for example, and women could vote. Being a militaristic society, they also let girls take part in the sporting activities and training, such as wrestling, running and riding horses. The reason? They believed all of this necessary in order to have strong, healthy women bear strong, healthy children.
During Cynisca’s time, the Olympics had been underway for almost 400 years. The Olympics was only for men, but Cynisca loved horses and chariot racing so much, that she entered a four-horse chariot into the upcoming games. It was not unusual to see Spartan women holding the reins in daily life, but you never saw them do so at the Olympic games. Cynisca hired men to race her team of horses and won the four-horse chariot race – twice that we know of: in 396 BC and 392 BC. After that, at the urging of her brother, she joined the races personally. There is a bronze statue of a horse and chariot, a charioteer and Cynisca in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia; and she received a hero-shrine in Sparta at Plane-tree Grove, which was usually only reserved for kings.
Because of her and the five other women who followed in her footsteps, Greek women went from being the prizes men won, to winning the prizes.
One lady who I always admired for her bravery, intelligence and love of country was Dolley Madison, wife to President James Madision in the very early 1800s. Dolley was born in 1768 in a Quaker settlement in Piedmont, NC. The fourth of eight children. She married young and had two sons. Unfortunately, both her husband and one of her sons died of yellow fever. Dolley became a widow too young, but her charm and good looks caught the eye of many men in the area.
Dolley’s father had passed away in 1792, and her mother, Mary Payne, opened their home to boarders, including a man named Aaron Burr, who was a Congressman in NY. This turned out to be serendipitous for Dolley, as Burr ended up introducing her to her future husband, Congressman James Madison of Virginia. Despite being 17 years older than her, they married in 1794. It was a happy marriage, but did not produce any children.
Because Madison was secretary of state for President Thomas Jefferson, they moved to Washington, DC, and Dolley became a prominent, respected co-host at the many receptions and dinners. Dolley took on the role of philanthropist by founding a Washington DC home for orphaned girls, and by fundraising for the exploration of the Louisiana Territory by Lewis and Clark. She created for herself a public persona that all other First Ladies to come would aim to follow. She even put together the first presidential inaugural ball in 1809. Dolley loved the public life, and took her role as First Lady very seriously. She was easy to talk to and charming, and effortlessly steered conversations with political figures and their spouses in a way that revealed their positions on certain issues, or convinced them to consider her husband’s views. She also knew to use visual effects to distinguish herself and impress foreign diplomats.
But what I admire her most for was her conscious act of symbolic patriotism just before British troops burned Washington during the War of 1812. It was Aug. 22, 1814, and, according to the WHite House Historical Society and Dolley’s personal letters, her husband left the White House to meet with his generals on the battlefield. British troops were threatening to invade the capitol, and he asked Dolley to stay at the White House and gather up the important state papers and wait for him to return. But before he could return, Dolley and her servants saw the British troops setting fire to the city and heading their way. Her servants begged her to leave, but she refused. Instead, she immediately and without hesitation told them to forget all of her personal belongings and help her save the large full-length portrait of George Washington that was hanging on one of the walls. There was no way she could let vengeful British soldiers desecrate George Washington. However, to her and the servants’ dismay, the frame was screwed into the wall. Seeing there was little time, she ordered them to break the frame, pull out the canvas and roll it up.
After the painting was safely taken away, left the White House, crossing the Potomac into Virginia, where she met up with her husband. When the British troops got to the White House, they had a large, destructive feast, burned it to the ground and then left. Three days later, Dolley and the President were able to return to Washington, but found the White House in ruins. During their post-presidential years, she helped her husband in the organization and preparation for public release of the papers he used in drafting the U.S. Constitution.