Thursday, 22 July 2010

Influential Women

I've recently finished reading a book which ranks the 100 most influential women, past and present.  I was amazed, and annoyed with myself, at how many I'd never heard of.  The book is great in that it gives a 2-3 page biographical synopsis to explain why a woman was included on the list, but to my mind it is written backwards and I read it from back to front.  I didn't want to read about the most influential woman first and the least, last, if you follow me.

I've copied down the list and will likely track down some biographies of the ones that interested me the most.  While I was at it, I put their names and years of birth and death into a spreadsheet, so that I could put them in order by the time in which they lived.  The earliest five women constitute a very mixed bag:

Sappho (c. 613 B.C. - c. 570 B.C.).  I associate this name with Lesbians, and she was apparently bi-sexual and lived on the Isle of Lesbos.  What I hadn't realised was that she was a Greek poet of epic proportion who influenced not only Roman writers but other poets from the 16th to the 19th centuries.  She can also be considered the first known woman author and so the founder of women's literature. I thought it interesting how many details of her life could be found from her poetry, including the fact that she had a child named after her own mother, she came from an aristocratic family that was exiled for their political views and her own parents died by the time she was 6 years old.  Felder ranked her number 61.

Cleopatra (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.).   Cleopatra also lived in a very different time, where the custom was for the ruling family members to marry their siblings.   When Cleopatra's father died he left his kingdom of Egypt jointly to her (aged 18) and her 10-year old brother/husband.  Traditionally, she should have been subservient to her brother, but she was having none of that.  She fled Alexandria and declared war on Ptolemy XIII, her brother.  Enter Caesar, representing Rome, who wanted peace in Egypt, under joint rule of brother and sister, so as not to rock the boat in Rome.  However, Cleopatra, smuggled past her brothers' men in a rolled up carpet, won Caesar over.  Ptolemy XIII was overcome by Caesar and Cleopatra married a 12 year old brother, Ptolemy XIV.  He apparently kept his head down and out of the way.  Caesar and Cleopatra had a child together and were lovers until Caesar's murder in 44 B.C.   Wealthy Egypt was in danger from greedy Rome, especially when Cleopatra refused to aid Cassius, one of Caesar's murderers.  Instead, she allied herself with Marc Anthony, who was supporting Octavius, Caesar's heir.  Antony had also married Octavia, Octavius' sister.  However, at some point Antony decided he wanted Parthia (Persia) for himself and he invited Cleopatra to help him attain that goal.  She did more than that, of course, as they were married in 36 B.C. and had three children together.  It was their combined might that worried Rome and Antony, having neglected his previous wife and become far too ambitious, was out of favour.  Antony and Cleopatra's forces battled with Octavius and Antony, having failed to take Cleopatra's strategic advice, failed and fell on his sword.  Rather than be taken captive by Octavius, poisoned herself with the bite of an asp.  Felder asserts that Cleopatra was a brave and savvy woman and one of only two women in history - the other being Boudicca - to truly challenge the might of the Roman Empire.  She is ranked 84th.  

By the way, there is a fabulous novel that Bill has, called The Purple Pirate, by Talbot Mundy, set in this time and place; it's a great read!

The Virgin Mary (c. 1st Century B.C. - c. 1st Century A.D.)  Felder states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is undoubtedly the most famous woman of all time.  However, not because of her own life and work, of which little is known. 
"More a myth and an article of faith than a flesh-and-blood woman, Mary reflects the times and culture of those who view her as an embodiment of their faith, hopes and desires.  She also reveals much about how women have been seen over time, becoming for each age a guide to the ideal and the perfect."
Her parents names were apparently Joachim and Anne, which is more than I ever knew.  Felder says the Gospel writers differ in the details of her life and the importance of her role.  It was interesting to read about the attempt to refer to Mary as a person, separate from her role in history and religion.  Felder ranked Mary as 10th most influential.

The next most historic female figure on this list was named Wu Chao (625 - c. 705).  Empress Wu ruled China for 50 years, during the T'ang Dynasty, and was the only woman ever to rule that country in her own right, alone.  Though she was known to be ruthless, her reign was an era marked by peace and prosperity, major reforms and high cultural achievement.  She is remembered as one of the strongest leaders in Chinese history.  She ranked 89th.

Murasaki Shikibu (973 - 1030) was a lady in the Japanese court and author of The Tale of Genji, considered the first great novel in world literature, a book filled with believable characters in real situations.  The novel covers a 75-year period and chronicles the career of a nobleman named Genji, illegitimate son of the Emporer, and of Kaoru, believed to be son of Genji, but actually the son of Genji's best friend.  Felder says that the book invites comparison with Proust (not that I've read Proust, either).  Lady Murasaki was ranked 73rd.

I can't imagine how Felder went about selecting the 100 women about whom she wrote, or how long it must have taken her to read about them and condense their life stories, but I'm glad she did. 


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very interesting book. You shouldn't be annoyed with yourself - after all, we're not encyclopedias. Besides, "influential" is a very loose term... The people who were influential to me are most definitely not in that book.

Struggler said...

Sounds fascinating. I wonder how the author went about comparing the influence, of say, Murasaki Shikibu and Oprah Winfrey?