I often say that one of the reasons I feel so passionately about this project is that modern girls and young women lack good heroines. Cheryl Cole seems like a perfectly pleasant woman but is she really the best we can aspire to? A reality t.v. show pop start, married (though apparently not for much longer) to an unfaithful footballer. Is getting on the cover of a gossip magazine really the pinnacle of human achievement?
When I was about ten years old, I went through a phase of being rather obsessed with Joan of Arc. (Looking back, I accept I was probably something of an odd child.) I admired her bravery, her faith and her determination. I accepted, not without relief, that life was almost certainly not going to offer me the opportunity to lead an army against invading foreigners. I didn’t believe in her god but even at that age found other people’s faith fascinating (I went on to study religion, along with history, at university). I may not have exactly wanted to be like Joan of Arc, but I aspired to many of the qualities I saw in her.
Joan of Arc, c.1450-1500
Now I’m older and have a more nuanced view of what makes a person admirable, I see many of the infamous women I’m investigating as being brimful of the qualities I aspire to. No, these women weren’t always “good.” More often than not they refused to toe the line; frequently failed to do their wifely duties and often disregarded contemporary standards of acceptable behaviour, it’s true. Their faults, even including criminality, serve to make them more interesting people (Cheryl Cole’s conviction for common assault notwithstanding.)
Cleopatra refused to be a victim, even in defeat. Eleanor of Aquitaine sought out her own path through life, refusing to bow to other people’s demands. Anne Boleyn was offered a good opportunity, saw a way to make it great and took it, on her own terms. Catherine de’ Medicis was ruthless in the defence of her family. Anne Bonny and Mary Read both found escape from unsatisfying lives for the excitement and adventure of a life on the high seas.
I can’t help but think that those qualities are worth more than fame, wealth and great hair.