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Q & A Who’s the Most Fascinating Woman in History (International Edition)?

By Ana Brazil
March 15, 2024

It seemed only fitting during Women’s History Month that we celebrate some of the most fascinating women in history. And since PLW is often so US-centric (although we have members in Canada and England), I thought it’d be great to keep our heroines international.

 

Vanitha Sankaran starts us off with Ada Lovelace:

Many of us histfic writers draw inspiration from previous careers or other passions—my STEM background has certainly shaped my literary perspective. Coding, for example, can often mirror poetry, whether it’s a concise construct with one goal or bloated with unnecessary language.

One of my early idols was Ada Lovelace. Born in 1815, the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and his reformist wife, Lovelace was schooled in science and mathematics rather than the literary study that was her father’s focus. Recognized as the world’s first computer programmer, she crafted the earliest algorithm designed for machine execution—over a century before computer science was even established. Lovelace foresaw the potential of machine logic to enhance even the arts and music, a vision now re-emerging in the form of AI generators. She lived in a world of not just math but of also of metaphysics and intuition and dreaming.

A quote that has always stayed with me. “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”

 

My contribution is Joan of Arc:

Joan of Arc—Jeanne d’Arc of France (c. 1412)—has long fascinated me. Joan’s simple peasant life changed dramatically at thirteen when she began having visions of St. Michael the Archangel. These visions led Joan to believe she was meant to fulfill the local prophecy that an armed virgin would save France, which was currently warring with England in the Hundred Years’ War.

After much religious discernment, Joan was presented to the French King Charles VII, who supported her cause to fight the English. Buoyed by the belief that Joan was chosen by God, she and her armies had many bold victories. But about eighteen months after taking up her sword, Joan’s army lost badly, and she was taken captive. The English victors tried Joan for heresy against the Catholic church, found her guilty, and executed her by fire on May 30, 1431. Joan was nineteen years old.

As fascinating as Joan’s external life was, I wonder more about her internal life: How did it feel to have visions of saints and angels? To believe you were chosen by God to save your country? To live a life so outside the norms for a girl of your time?

Twenty-five years after Joan’s execution, her trial was nullified; 463 years afterward, Pope Leo XIII declared Joan was divinely inspired; and almost 500 years after her execution, Joan was canonized as France’s Patron Saint.

 

Alina Rubin shares her appreciation for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Before Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine, there was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762), whose contribution to the field of medicine was extremely important but much less known.

When traveling with her husband on a diplomatic mission to Turkey, Lady Mary learned that the locals have a way of preventing smallpox, a disease that almost killed her. The procedure was crude, done with a large needle and a nutshell filled with pus from mild smallpox blisters. After consulting with a British surgeon, Lady Mary had her son inoculated.

Upon returning to England, Lady Mary had an audience with Carolina, the Princess of Wales. She convinced the Princess to test the procedure on prisoners and orphans. When the test subjects survived, the Princess allowed her children to be inoculated. Lady Mary continued advocating for inoculations, convincing many powerful people, including Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

Eventually, Edward Jenner advanced the technique of the vaccines. In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated. A contribution of one woman made a lasting difference.

Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, c. 1756

Jonathan Posner is a fan of Katherine Parr:

Katherine Parr was the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII.

The Melton Constable or Hastings portrait of Queen Catherine[

My reasons for choosing her:

  1. She had already been married – and widowed – twice when she married the aged and irascible Henry, so had the maturity and experience to outwit him (unlike most of her predecessors).
  2. When her extreme Protestant politics made her enemies at court, she had the courage and intelligence to hang on to her throne (and her head).
  3. She was the first woman in England to publish an original work under her own name (a book of prayer) – leading the way for future woman authors.
  4. She was the only real mother Henry’s children Edward and Elizabeth had ever known – and her strong influence was a major reason why they both became Protestants and continued Henry’s Reformation.

So who knows – without Katherine Parr, Protestantism might never have survived in the English-speaking world!

 

Anne M. Beggs rounds out the appreciation with Anne Frank:

A favorite woman in any history is Anne Frank. My connection to her goes back to my childhood. The movie The Diary of Anne Frank came out in 1959, and my mother had a paperback Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. We watched the movie several times on TV (I was in elementary school) and my mother explained much of WWII, the politics, hatred, love, and courage surrounding Anne and the other members being hidden. I was both haunted and inspired by her story.

I wrapped blankets around our bunk bed, pretending I was in hiding, making no noise, thinking how fearful each sound I heard could Nazis coming for me.

At 13 I read the diary, and her adolescent angst resonated soul-deep with me. We couldn’t get along with our mothers, idolized our fathers. Our bodies and minds were in such turmoil. We could have been best friends! Yet, I was living an idyllic life in San Jose, California, while she had lived in fear of discovery and death. Her writing is eloquent, so insightful for a young woman between 12-15 years of age. She died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. The guilt and shame of living was staggering for me at times. How could I atone for her loss? Her talent, her optimism.

She was the same age as my parents. They had grown to live full lives surrounded by loving family. Only Otto Frank survived, to return to no family.

My husband, kids and I visited the Achterhuis (anti-chamber) in Amsterdam. I toured Dachau. Haunting, chilling experiences that remind all of the great loss of humanity, and the great capacity for humanity in the face of such heinousness.

Here are some of her profound quotes, from a teenage girl, that will continue to inspire us all:

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too…”

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains…”

And of course, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

I type this through my tears. Remembering a young woman who strove to see the good in one the darkest, bleakest times ever recorded. I am still haunted and inspired to seek understanding, live with purpose, and in gratitude.

Ana Brazil

Written by Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    So many amazing women! What a great blog, Ana.

    Reply

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