Now and then, we like to host periodic threads intended to allow for more open discussion that allows a multitude of possible answers from people of all sorts of backgrounds and levels of expertise.
Today’s topic is Women Badder Than Taylor Swift. Today we’re drawing on some or those Tweets that have been going around asking people to name a woman badder than Taylor Swift. So tell us about your badass historical women.
As is the case with previous Floating Features, there is relaxed moderation here to allow more scope for speculation and general chat then there would be in a usual thread! But with that in mind, we of course expect that anyone who wishes to contribute will do so politely and in good faith.
sunagainstgold: How far would you go for what you believe in?
We know basically nothing about the background or daily life of Marguerite, called Porete, in late 13th century French-speaking Europe. Medieval theologian Jean Gerson refers to a “Marie of Valciennes” in a similar context, so she may have been from the Low Countries original, and her writing suggests a highly educated, probably courtly/noble background. We do know that she was not a nun. That is, she lived her life in the world, without convent walls to protect her from the anxieties of male clerics struggling to maintain their ecclesiastical power.
This meant a broader audience for her as a teacher. Yes, a teacher: in an age where women were forbidden from preaching and interpreting Scripture in public, Marguerite gathered a circle of students around her. She wrote a book with a fantastic title, *The Mirror of Simple Souls*, describing her vision of the soul’s journey to God.
But this was no typical journey. You see, from 1215 on, the medieval Church creaked its way to orienting itself around the laity and around the Eucharist. Its own sacraments and its own moral teaching ought to be *the* guiding axis of religion and of society. The Church–the male clergy–stood as the earthly mediators between humans and God.
Marguerite said, “Yes but.”
In *Mirror of Simple Souls,* the sacraments of the Church and canon law are but one stage of the soul’s journey towards self-abnegation and annihilation into God. As people grow more and more inflamed with the love of God and align their will towards God to the point of having no self-will anymore, they will transcend the need for confession, for the Eucharist. For guidance from the clergy.
Marguerite never says that souls dissolving themselves into God *will* or *must* cease participating in the rituals of what she *awesomely* calls “Holy Church the Little.” But as you can imagine, quite a few people who fancied themselves the leaders of “Holy Church the Little” didn’t see it that way.
They confronted Marguerite, arrested her. In public, they staged a ritual burning of a physical copy of her book in front of her. Books were astronomically expensive at this point in time, and typically, “destroying” a book simply meant scraping down the parchment layer with the ink on it and writing something new. To genuinely *destroy* a book showed it as beyond redemption. Stop teaching, they told Marguerite. First we burn books; then we burn people.
By 1309, guess who was in Paris–teaching, preaching, and distributing copies of her book. That, we think, she had not only kept a copy of, but had *added more.*
For a *year*, Marguerite held out in jail. She would not swear the oath of Holy Church the Little, would not confess. When the inquisitors withheld the Eucharist from her, to try to get her to talk, did she react by living out her spiritual ideas in the *Mirror*? Is that how she saw it?
We don’t know. We do know that Marguerite was convicted of heresy–a *second* time. A first conviction for heresy, if one would abjure, allowed freedom after penance, as with the burning of her book. A second conviction mandated death.
On June 1, 1310, Marguerite was burned in front of the eyes of the people of Paris. Even chroniclers hostile to this *pseudo-mulier* (“false woman”) praised her steadfastness to and in the flames. We can’t know what she was thinking. But given her persistence in clarifying her teaching and promoting it, her perseverance under inquisition, and the content of the teaching for which she gave her life, it’s plausible to see Marguerite, in death, becoming the annihilated “simple soul” that Christians should strive to be. Not merely willing to do God’s will, but to annihilate one’s own self entirely into the abyss of God.
sunagainstgold: This one’s a repost, but it’s one of my absolute favorite historical stories: the rise and fall of Anna Laminit, spiritual con artist; and the triumph of Bavaria’s best duchess, Kunigunde of Austria (1465-1520), daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and wife of Duke Albrecht of Bavaria.
A favorite of her father and close to her brother Maximilian (the future emperor), the adolescent Kunigunde made quite an impression on visitors to the imperial court with her extensive humanist education, knowledge of current events, and deep religious piety. Luther’s mentor Johann von Staupitz even dedicated one of his texts to her. As imperial princess, Kunigunde was no window dressing. She had her father’s ear, and was a *very* effective intermediary for petitioners bringing their pleas to the court.
Her marriage was shrouded in drama and duplicity. Far from the typical “marriage alliance” story of royal parents betrothing their daughter in toddlerhood (with actual marriage, of course, following long afterwards), the emperor and empress actually refused offers for young Kunigunde. Finally, both Friedrich and Kunigunde agreed she would make a profitable match with Albrecht, the duke of Bavaria. But between the initial agreement and the potential wedding, the hurting-for-finances Albrecht decided to make up some of that gap by attempting to seize control of Regenburg, a city located within the boundaries of Bavaria but answerable directly to the emperor. Friedrich nixed the marriage.
Kunigunde married Albrecht anyway.
There is some question whether Albrecht tricked her into marrying him. The story goes that he presented her with a false reassurance of her father’s approval, but subsequent events–the rapidness with which they married and Friedrich’s anger at *both*–poses some questions.
However relations with her much-older husband evolved, Kunigunde threw herself into being duchess of *Bavaria* and politically-minded mother to a whole host of children. After Albrecht’s death, in fact, she picked a convent in Munich to retire to–from which she manipulated her eldest son, Wilhelm, into *sharing the dukedom* with his younger brother Ludwig (apparently Kunigunde’s favorite).
But what elevates Kunigunde from a neat lady to *awesome* is her battle of wits with Anna Laminit.
In the Middle Ages, women could not teach and preach publicly about religion. The very, very rare exception was a bare handful of “religious women” who, through a combination of pious life, asceticism, support from a prominent cleric, charisma, massive diplomatic and communications skills, and a fair amount of luck, established themselves as vessels of divine revelation. In Augsburg around the turn of the 16th century, Anna Laminit staked such a claim for herself. In classic medieval holy woman fashion, the core evidence of her holiness was her extreme ascetic feats, above all superhuman self-starvation abilities. Her ability to eat nothing but the Eucharist for years and years was a clear sign, in the eyes of her beguine and clerical supporters–not to mention the population of Augsburg–that God favored her, including to the extent of making her a mouthpiece for his warnings of divine retribution. Laminit even convinced the by-then empress (Kunigunde’s sister in law), on a visit to the city, to lead a massive penitential parade with Laminit at her side in hopes of warding off God’s looming wrath against the city.
Laminit is a fascinating Bavarian woman in her own right (the prime of her life was spent in Augsburg, though, rather than Munich, so I’m telling the story with Kunigunde as protagonist). She was, by all accounts, an incredibly important figure for the people of Augsburg in spiritual and psychological terms. Her presence and her messages from God helped calm nerves in the face of some freaky meteorological events. She provided one-on-one spiritual counseling, too, usually in exchange for donations to charity. Over the course of a little over a decade, the prominent parish churches of Augsburg even kind of fought to secure her regular attendance, for prestige and for spiritual benefit. Augsburg, it is clear, believed it had received a special gift in the person of Anna Laminit.
Kunigunde was not so sure.
By 1511, she was a widow and had taken up residence in her beloved Franciscan convent in Munich. She might have been concerned about a too-strong independent Augsburg plopped in the middle of her sons’ principality; she might have been concerned about her brother’s remarks that Laminit was a clear sign he needed to mobilize against the Turkish threat (as opposed to being motivated by practical concerns, like the actual Turkish threat); she might have perceived that Laminit’s excesses were a dangerous precedent to be setting for devout Christians. For one reason or another, between 1504 and 1511, Kunigunde lost faith in the holy woman of Augsburg. So she designed an experiment/trap to unmask Laminit as the fraud the duchess believed she was.
Laminit’s sanctity and everything that went with it (her housing, her income, her fame, her power) rested above all on her miraculous asceticism. That, Kunigunde understood, was where to spring the trap. She invited Laminit for a stay at her convent, seeking advice. Laminit tried to defer, but Kunigunde prevailed (she was the dukes’ mother, after all! and, again, immensely popular and persuasive). After a nice day of prayers and spiritual counsel, really quite lovely according to all parties, Kunigunde and her fellow sisters showed Laminit to a nice private room.
What Laminit didn’t know what that Kunigunde had drilled a hole in the wall so sisters on the other side could see into the room. They were expecting to see Laminit eat. What they saw instead was Laminit poop–and then throw the devastating evidence out of the window. Since medieval Christians believed the Eucharist was absorbed as the body of Christ rather than digested and excreted like nutrients and undigestible waste, Laminit’s feces proved she had indeed been eating all along–and her attempt to cover it up meant she understood *exactly* what she was doing.
Laminit tried to protest that it was a one-time thing, that she was too weak from traveling in her semi-starved state so God had permitted her to eat a little something. Kunigunde was not swayed. Especially when she forced Laminit to eat some gingerbread in front of the sisters of the convent, and Laminit seemed to do so with little trouble at all.
Kunigunde dispatched Laminit back to Augsburg in disgrace, where she was expelled from the city.
Subsequent events would prove Kunigunde right whatever Laminit’s protests. She actually tried to restart her holy woman fraud in *another* city, but ultimately, it was a long-running *child support fraud* that led to Laminit’s final downfall and execution. For over a decade, Laminit had been extracting a substantial annual sum from a prominent businessman to help her care for their illegitimate son. Well, it came time for the son to enter a more expensive school, which naturally his caring father wanted for his son to have the best life he could.
Except–there wasn’t a son anymore.
Kunigunde was still alive in 1518–she may well have received word that the target of her triumph had been drowned in Freiburg for “fraud”, with a heavy implication of infanticide at its core. It was a spectacular rise and fall for “our holy Anna,” and a categorical confirmation of the power of her insight and true piety for Duchess Kunigunde.
jschooltiger: I’ve [written before about the influence of Grace Hopper on the field of computing]. To reprise that:
Hopefully you’ll not mind if I post on this, although it’s outside my flair area — in my “real job” I teach web development, and as I’m not in a traditional comp-sci department I have majority female classes. I’ve done some reading up on Hopper, because I think it’s important for my students to know about women in the computing sciences — but I digress.
It would be fairly difficult to overstate Hopper’s contributions to the field of computer science. She was a bit of a mechanical prodigy as a child, and applied for admission to Vassar at age 16 (her Latin scores were too low and she was turned down the first time). She graduated PBK from Vassar in 1928, with degrees in math and physics, and earned a master’s then a PhD in mathematics from Yale, in 1930 and 1934. She started working as a math professor at Vassar in 1931, and attempted to join the Navy early in WWII. She was initially denied entry to the Navy both for being too old (34) and too small (underweight), as well as having a war-critical job as a mathematician, but she persisted and was able to get a leave from Vassar to join the WAVEs in 1943. She was assigned after graduation to work at Harvard on the Mark 1 computer project, an electromagnetic computer that used punch tape for its programs. The Mark 1 didn’t have a way to handle conditional branching initially (that is, if/then statements); Hopper was one of the early programmers who worked on the machine to add that capability. The Mk 1 was used, among other things, to run numbers about the feasibility of an implosion technique for the “Fat Man” bomb (u/restricteddata probably knows a lot more about this).
Regarding computing opportunities in the Navy, the problem of fire control had been an issue for navies since the run-up to WWI. The US navy, among others, had developed entirely mechanical computers for training and elevating guns, gathering range and change data, and accounting for the ship’s own motion and roll — they were about 1.5 tons of weight and in plotting rooms of ships or battleships. (Confusingly, the computer was also called the Mark 1, not to be confused with the electromagnetic Mark 1.)
Hopper was transferred to the Naval Reserve and stayed at Harvard after the war; she eventually left Vassar permanently for a research fellowship paid for by the Navy. She was involved in developing the Mark 2 electromagnetic computer (the successor to the Mark 1) and famously [found a bug](https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/H96566k.jpg/440px-H96566k.jpg) in one of its relays that wasn’t working properly, popularizing the term for a glitch.
After leaving that fellowship in 1949, she started working for Eckert–Mauchly and was involved in developing the UNIVAC-1 computer. Her idea to use real words in code — that is, to write computer code using human-readable language — was dismissed by EMCC, but she continued to develop this independently and wrote the first ever compiler, the A-0, in 1951. (A compiler is something that takes programming language and converts it into machine language — that is, takes words that you and I can understand into 1’s and 0’s for the machine.) She continued work on versions of that compiler; the A2 version of the compiler was given for free to UNIVAC users and is sometimes called the first open source software.
When Hopper worked on the UNIVAC team, she developed the “B-0” (Business Version no. 0), FLOW-MATIC language, which was intended to allow business data customers to write commands with English keywords. In 1959, Hopper was part of a two-day conference on business language systems that led to her serving on a committee that used the logic of FLOW-MATIC to develop the COBOL language that’s known and feared by generations of business types. COBOL is still the underlying logic of most banking and airline systems, and other businesses that computerized early.
In 1967, she was named the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning, where she stayed for 10 years She worked with the Navy during this time to develop a COBOL compiler and standardize its use across the Navy, as well as working on standards for testing computers and devices. One of her early recommendations in that job was to replace large mainframe computers with distributed terminals that could access common resources on a network — which is a precursor, of course, to how we talk to one another on a network today!
In her later years, she was retired from the Navy and brought back a few different times, and recognized for her service by [a Congressional resolution](https://www.congress.gov/bill/98th-congress/house-joint-resolution/341) that promoted her to Commodore (now Rear Admiral, the 0-7 rank in the Navy). After her final retirement from the navy she worked as a goodwill ambassador for Digital Equipment Corporation (later bought by Compaq and subsequently absorbed into HP) until her death in 1992. She currently has a [US Navy destroyer named after her](https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/64/Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_USS_Hopper_leaves_Joint_Base_Pearl_Harbor-Hickam..jpg/600px-Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_USS_Hopper_leaves_Joint_Base_Pearl_Harbor-Hickam..jpg)
Bernardito: [I’ve recounted this one before](https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/6dnigu/what_is_the_happiest_story_from_history_you_have/di43lbg/), but the anonymous Chilean camp follower (one of thousands) who followed her husband on campaign in the Peruvian Andes – all while being heavily pregnant.
Dire88: I’ve posted this [elsewhere], but I think it is worth rehashing.
In 1783, 21 year old Elizabeth Derby, the eldest daughter of Salem shipping magnate Elias Hasket Derby, eloped with Captain Nathaniel West – a mariner who had spent years working for the Derby family.
Though the cause of much distress in the family, eventually E.H. Derby accepted the marriage and included West in the family business. The couple would go on to have six children. Following Elias Hasket and his wife’s deaths in 1799, the estate was settled with his siblings and their families all receiving near equal portions in the family business and estate. Feuds continued between Captain West and his brothers-in-law, who it may be said did not inherit the family talent for business.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth never quite bounced back in society, having married down the social pecking order. A few years later the marriage fell apart, and by 1803 the two separated. Three years later, following a change in Massachusetts law which offered greater protection of assets in the case of of divorce citing adultery, Elizabeth filed for divorce from Captain West.
Salem Reverend William Bentley captured the court proceedings in his diary (and absolutely amazing source for Salem during this period) and included the following:
> …after every quarrel with all her relatives she waged open war against her husband & this day, aided by the unfeeling perseverance of her malignant Br[other] Gen. E.H. D[erby] who has a private quarrel to avenge, she displayed in open court, to prove the incontinence of Capt. W[est], all the sweepings of the Brothels of Boston, & all the vile wretches of Salem, Marblehead, Cape Ann.
All told over fifty prostitutes were brought into the court, as well as at least two women claiming West had fathered their children. The Captain offered up defense, including evidence that Elizabeth and her brother had paid for testimonies, but to no avail. After having dinner with Elizabeth’s brother the night before, the court ruled in her favor for the divorce.
She lived out the rest of her life with her children in the Oak Hill estate which she inherited from her father. Captain West went on in business, which would never quite bounce back after having his name dragged through the mud.
Bentley summed up West’s folly quite succinctly:
>Never could Johnson’s words better [be] applied, when a man marries a fortune it is not all he marries. The woman became all that is execrable in women from vanity, caprice, folly, & malignity…He was an enterprising seaman with no uncommon advantages of education or nature, but his ambition led him to address the eldest daughter of the late E.H. Derby…The mother of Elizabeth was a Crowninshield and well known for vanity which she exposed to constant & deserved ridicule. E. possessed the rigid temper of her father, with all the weakness of her mother.