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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Biographies of elite women

Notes from a lecture - biographies of women

When looking for biographies of 16th century women who were NOT queens, you will find very little available. Popular interest in Bess of Hardwick is generated more by her exceptional status as a flamboyantly much-married - four times - ambitious and extremely wealthy woman than by any consideration of her political role. When I originally gave this lecture, there was one biography of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, sometime heir to the throne of England and a fixture at the English court (in between time spent in prison) through four Tudor reigns. That book spends the first four chapters, approximately 100 pages, describing events before her birth.

Since then another book on Margaret Douglas has been written by Alison Weir and published by Ballantine Press in 2017. In 2019, I gave a lecture on her titled The Marvelous Mistress Margaret: The Most important Tudor you don't know. Margaret eventually won the dynastic lottery, albeit posthumously as it was her grandson that inherited the throne of England from Elizabeth 1.

Book cover for a biography of Mary Sidney Herbert. She's identified by her relationship to her brother.

Despite consensus that Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke was one of the most literate women in Elizabethan England who set up a rival court at Wilton House without rousing too much ire in the queen - remarkably, there are relatively few biographies of her. The seminal work by Margaret Hannay is titled Philip's Phoenix (1990) identifying her in relation to her brother, not in her own right. The majority of other work published about this woman is about her translations, writings, and context to literary study, not her role as chatelaine to an important castle, Pembroke, her role in the county, the court, or her participation in her husband's, father's, sons's, or brothers's affairs., i.e. her family.

It should be possible to write gender-neutral biographies, personal stories that include political contexts for both men and women. After all, monarchs who let their hearts rule their heads tend to court disaster, be they male or female; and there have been plenty of both examples. This does not mean the removal of sex and romance from biography. After all, broad appeal supports strong sales. But by making personal and emotional experiences the central biographical theme of politically active women and not of politically active men, female participation is diminished within the historical narrative. In fact femaleness is relegated to an emotive sphere without reason.

If you can, think back to some of the stories written about Hilary Clinton, the astonishment that she might not like baking cookies, her haircut, the pantsuits and most interestingly her 'interference in West Wing policy' during her husband's presidency. Bill Clinton did not run for president alone. Hilary ran with him. She shared much of his experience, is well educated, well-travelled, and articulate. This is true of most presidential wives., although Clinton was the first presidential wife to subsequently be named Secretary of State, an office first held by Thomas Jefferson. And presidential families, wives, children, in-laws, cousins, are an important component of victory - or loss. They campaign with the candidate. They put up with all the same inconveniences and mostly do what is expected of them to support the candidate's ambition. It's a family effort.

I refuse outright to discuss the Trumps at this point past stating the obvious. The family not only helped get their patriarch elected, they took West Wing offices and presented themselves as active participants in governing - excluding Melania.

To start my quest to learn, and write, about elite Elizabethan women, the women who were not queens, the women had to be found. Because of the paltry number of biographies and secondary literature about these women, I had to go to the archives and to some unpublished doctoral theses. When I started my research there were two other doctoral dissertations completed on ladies-in-waiting. One was American from Northwestern University and the other one was from Cambridge University. Both tried to identify the ladies in waiting to both Elizabeth and her sister Mary, a.k.a. Bloody Mary. Both relied on Strickland. The Cambridge one was excellent. This gave me the names of elite women, and consequently the families, who were actually serving at court.

I am happy to report that in the last decade there have been several more doctoral dissertations on elite women of the early-modern period, some of which have gone on to be published books.


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