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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Two decades later

Notes from a lecture - Becoming an historian

So there I was at the local university, taking every European history course on offer and wanting more. When I started, there was one European history professor - the eminence gris - the guy students said would die at his lectern. During my second term, a second professor with a European focus was hired. He was patient with my endless questioning and agreed to supervise a research project that I had pitched more as a way to earn additional credits than anything else. I picked Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, because I thought there was already too much information on Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. Plus, I loved her characterization in Dorothy Dunnett's books. I was clearly naive about the Tudor industry.

Mary of Guise, a.k.a. Mary of Lorraine, is more usually identified as the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. You may know her as Fanny Ardant in the movie Elizabeth (1998) starring Cate Blanchett. She was the eldest daughter of the de Guise family and the House of Lorraine in what we now call France. She was a good friend of the French Princess Madeleine who had married King James V of Scotland. Unfortunately, this delicate flower of France did not survive the Scottish climate and died shortly after arriving at her new home. James was in need of another French wife to maintain alliances so Mary of Guise replaced her dead friend in James's court and bed.

Mary of Guise did her duty as a consort and produced a male heir and a spare, but they both died young. Her husband, the king. died from the aftereffects of his defeat at the battle of Solway Moss in 1542. Fortunately, Mary of Guise gave birth to a healthy daughter just one week before the king's death, and this baby became Mary Queen of Scots at the ripe old age of 6 days. Mary of Guise was now the queen mother and worked the rest of her life to hold onto the regency. Even during the times she was not officially regent, she was a force to be reckoned with - partly because her family was one of the most influential in France, and the French king, who it was rumored had a serious crush on her before she married the barbaric Scot James, sent her troops and money.

In my first foray into formal if unfocussed historical research, my conclusion was that Mary of Guise was a regent without gender - in her own mind if not all the unruly Scottish lords around her. Her leadership was neither feminine nor masculine and it was rather more competent than the competitors for the post - all of whom were male. Her greatest coup was negotiating the marriage of her 5-year-old daughter to the dauphin of France, heir to the throne, and spiriting her, with four other 5-year-old companions also all named Mary, off to France where she was safe from kidnapping attempts by the English and Spanish.

Mary, Queen of Scots grew up in the French court, married the dauphin in 1558, became Queen of France and then her husband died 18 months later. As an inconvenient and extra queen dowager - there was already her dowager queen mother-in-law Catherine de Medici - her stay in France was problematic, so she returned to Scotland to cause trouble for many - but mostly for herself.

This research project was a microcosm of what I eventually did for my doctoral work although I didn't know it at the time. It whetted my appetite for finding out more about the time period and how to do proper research.

By the way, the TV show Reign about the young Mary Queen of Scots gets tons wrong before it tries to shove in some YA goth with an unnecessary and bloody supernatural secondary plot. For example, the show's description says Mary arrived in France at the age of 15, not 5, none of her ladies-in-waiting are named Mary, and the costumes look like Kleinfeld's bridesmaids's shop crashed into a Forever 21 store. Enjoy it by all means. Just don't mistake it for history.

Back to reality. At about this time, it became clear that Hilary Clinton would most likely run for president. This fueled public discussion about women political leaders. Would the U.S. elect a female president? Would we elect Hilary Clinton as that first woman president? The question that was rarely addressed in the press at the time was if Mrs. Clinton won the election, what would Bill Clinton do? Would her first term as president be viewed as Bill Clinton's third term? Clearly Mrs. Clinton was, and is, a political animal who made a strong case for her two runs at the highest office in the land. But what would be the role of her family, her spouse, and why oh why was the U.S. so atwitter about a female president? Was she only a viable candidate in 2007/08 because of, or in spite of, her spouse?

After all, there had been female political leaders in other countries. The 20th and early 21st centuries are rife with female political leaders, Bennazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Golda Meier (Israel), Indira Ghandhi (India), Isabel Peron (Argentina), Corazon Aquino (The Phillippines) , Mary Robinson (Ireland), Ellen Johnsons Sirleaf (Liberia), Angela Merkel (Germany), Jacinda Arden (New Zealand), and of course Margaret Thatcher (U.K). What was it about our own history that made the specter of a female president seem so foreign?

The U.S. did not elect Hilary Clinton as the first female president - twice. We don't know what Bill would have done in the East Wing of the White House, The U.S. is still reluctant to elect a woman for the highest office in the land despite multiple female primary candidates in the last election cycle. And The Handmaid's Tale depiction of patriarchal control over all levels of female experience is more tightly connected to contemporary society than any gender-neutral utopian image the land of the free might evoke. The unsettling appearance of protestors dressed in costumes from The Handmaid's Tale reminds us that the U.S. is very far from allowing half the population to control their own bodies much less a country.


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