I have great news! (At least, it is great from my perspective. Y’all just jump on my train, okay?) I have a release date for my second non-fiction book, The Jezebel Effect: Why the slut shaming of famous queens still matters.
It will be officially released into the wild on February 27, 2015. That’s right! In just two more weeks I’ll be whinging at you all with ever-increasing desperation to buy it! Aren’t you all excited??
From now until then, I shall give you small samples from the book so you can start 1)getting very pumped up about the whole thing and 2) share with your friends who have all been looking for a book about slut shamed queens and just didn’t know it.
Here’s sample #1 – enjoy!
Very few queens are prominent historical figures on par with Henry VIII or Peter the Great. For the most part queens are less famous because they were sidelined into the roles of crowned consorts and official heir-bearers rather than given access to actual power. Of the queens whom history remembers vividly, most of them are as infamous as they are famous. The biggest reason for this is that, in the words of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, well behaved women seldom make history. If a woman has been a good girl, she has almost always kept her lips clamped and her knees tight together and has known her “place” in society. In contrast, queens that made their mark on the world have tended to do it in spite of social assumptions about what women should – or could – do.
Slut shamed queens are women who have challenged social mores and changed the world. They are women like Jezebel, who defended her culture and fought back against usurpers. Or like Cleopatra, who did more to keep her kingdom safe from Roman control than most kings of her era. Famous queens are those like Anne Boleyn, whose moral code would not allow her to be a powerful man’s mistress. They are women like Katheryn Howard, who dared to have sex for pleasure, or those like Catherine the Great, who enjoyed ruling men as much as she enjoyed them as lovers. As a result of the strength and/or the defiance of gender norms these women displayed, they have all been roundly abused in history as trollops, tramps, and tarts.
Once a queen was historically designated as a brazen hussy, her deeds were subsequently interpreted as slutty without due skepticism. The actions of many famous queens were reverse engineered so that any historical event offered “evidence” of their lewdness, no matter how seriously facts had to be contorted to fit that narrative.
But that was all so long ago! Why should we care about the slut shaming of queens? How do slanders about queen who died hundreds of years ago affect anything in the present?
It matters because history and gender are actually deeply intertwined.
One of the ways that cultural norms about gender, the understanding of the ‘way people should be’, is transmitted and solidified in the public mind is by official history (Hennessy, 2012). History depicted as a place where women either did embroidery like good girls or slutted it up like bad girls is not only inaccurate, it harms modern women’s sense of themselves and what they can accomplish. History matters because it is a lens through which people view the world. How can girls or women think of these strong queens as role models or heroines if to emulate them is to risk being slut shamed?
Some of the most dynamic and influential queens who ever reigned have been thoroughly slut shamed during their lifetimes and via historical tittle-tattle long after their deaths. Queens who became powerful in their own right, or who were impossible for men to control, or who flew in the face of past and present cultural assertions about gendered traits, have been configured as floozies. Strong queens expose the idea that women are inherently meek and passive as the flimflam it is. Therefore, these women were seen as threats to social order in the past, and they are still subconsciously viewed that way today. They are also slut-shamed in order to degrade their accomplishments and to make them appear to be gender anomalies. Women cannot be as powerful as men, unless they are freaks of nature.
That’s why queens stand out. They are womanly symbols of a culture and/or country. In the past they had dominion over all the men in their kingdom. They are feminized power incarnate. Dominate women are often seen as threats to the current social matrix and were discouraged accordingly. While slut shaming was only one of the myriad ways other women warned away from power, it has often been the most effective and easily employed.
Nevertheless, not all queens have been slut shamed. Some queens pass into history without accusations of putative sluttiness. Why are some queens singled out for slut shaming, while others are left to enjoy a virtuous reputation? What leaves some women remembered as Good Queen Maude and others as the French She-Wolf?
It can’t just be that those who were slut shamed were all “too” strong – women who committed the sin of commanding men rather than submitting to them. Isabella I of Castile, Queen of Spain, was not a cat’s paw for her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon; she was his equal. She rode into battle, she conquered, she slaughtered, and she ruled with a stainless-steel grip on her underlings. Isabella I even paved the way for the Spanish Inquisition, which only lunatics think was a good idea. The Spanish Inquisition drove more than 170,000 Jews from their homes and killed or forcibly converted countless others. Isabella I of Castile was no sweet-tempered creampuff. Why isn’t she known as Isabella the Cruel? Why are there no rumors she made the beast with two backs with men other than Ferdinand?
For that matter, why isn’t “Bloody” Mary I of England slut shamed? She usurped the throne from the lawful queen, Jane Grey, and then murdered the innocent teenager for political reasons. That is, by anyone’s standards, a crappy thing to do. Since most women who have done something transgressive get accusations of sexual misconduct added to their list of sins, why is Mary I given a pass?
The most likely explanation is because neither Isabella nor her granddaughter Mary ever sought equality for any other woman but themselves. In fact, both Isabella and Mary saw themselves as divinely appointed outliers and viewed other women as a teeming mass of potential sinners. There was no proto-feminism rocking the boat, I assure you. Both queens actively defended and strengthened cultural norms in general. Thus, their gender became secondary to their support of the larger system. Furthermore, Mary and Isabella were devoutly religious and did everything in their power to spread the influence and control of the Catholic Church, which defined the existing gender ideologies. The Medieval Church made the beliefs in women’s inferiority not only correct, but sacred. Supporting the church was the equivalent of supporting the patriarchy of the times.
In contrast, many slut shamed queens not only rocked the boat, they launched Grace O’Malley worthy pirate attacks upon it. Although none of them would describe themselves as feminist (no one had invented the word yet), they all — either overtly or more subtly through art and literature — advocated for the enlightenment of at least some members of the female sex. This was, like feminism today, not an attempt to reverse society and create female rule over men. It was, like feminism today, an attempt to give women the same rights and opportunities as those who were born with a penis. As a result it was, like feminism today, seen as threat to the social norm. Culture subsequently pulled out all the slut shaming big guns to repel these piratical women seeking to board to the ship of state.
Proto-feminism isn’t the only thing to inspire the slut shaming of a queen. Other slut shamed queens broke the gender mold in a way that their cultures could not forgive; the precedent they set was too dangerous. There are also slut shamed queens who have merely been convenient scapegoats for historical events.
Restoring famous queens to their proper place as exemplars of feminine strength means first giving them the respect they deserve. The myth of sluttiness needs to be removed from these queens and historical facts need to be presented without the presumption of female deviance. In this way the cultural landscape can be transformed in small increments until it has become something radically different. Social change is often the result of people being made aware of an inequality and deciding it sucks. Pointing out the way famous queens have been slut shamed in the past may make the slut shaming in the present be viewed with more skeptical awareness.
If nothing else, the history of harlot queens deserves a more honest approach. They need to be seen in their role as rulers and as human beings, rather than as trashy women who happened to wear a crown. They deserve to be remembered for their bravery and will to survive and canny political maneuvering, not as round-heeled and manipulative dimwits. If they are to be reviled, let them be reviled for actions they have performed while fully dressed.
Look at some famous queens without slut-tinted glasses and what you see will surprise you.