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Debunking Gender Myths of History

Guest post by Doozy84

Are you writing a story or fantasy setting with traditional gender roles where the women are disadvantaged and don’t have a lot of opportunities? Do you think that old-timey women spent all their time on their backs or doing laundry or cooking? Think again buddy, for every traditional girly-girl barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen of history, there’s another woman behind her with an axe to grind.

Cleopatra and Joan of Arc were Plain Janes

The Lesson- Even in the ancient world, a woman can do more than be just a sex object

Cleopatra and Joan of Arc were both heroic leaders of their respective countries in their respective times, and had little in common. However, one thing they did have in common was that they did not rely upon their sexuality to influence men.

First-hand accounts of both Cleopatra and Joan of Arc’s appearances exist, and both women were considered in their time to not be beautiful, but that they had other things going on that made men follow them. Joan of Arc often slept in communal beds with her men on campaign, but there are no accounts of any men that claim they took her virginity, and she maintained that she remained a holy virgin throughout her witch trial. To hear her men tell it, it wasn’t difficult for her to stay a virgin.

Cleopatra famously seduced Mark Antony, and at the time, Mark Antony was the most powerful man in the known world and could have hundreds of the most beautiful women at his feet at any time he desired. Yet, Cleo was often described as being nothing special in terms of beauty, so his attraction to her likely had more to do with her brain than her body.

Birth Control Existed

The Lesson- Ancient women had body autonomy

There are many ancient cultures throughout the world that were aware of the existence and use of phytoestrogen rich plants that, when concentrated and ingested, had anti-pregnancy or pregnancy aborting properties, allowing women to control their fertility.

Phytoestrogen is an estrogen that occurs in plants, that the human body can’t tell apart from human estrogen. Modern birth control treatments often use controlled doses or bursts of estrogen to prevent or abort a pregnancy by sending biological signals to the brain that convince it that the woman is already pregnant, which will either prevent another egg from completing the menstrual cycle or abort one already fertilized. Phytoestrogen rich herbs were the means by which ancient women controlled pregnancy.

Reference: A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester

Pornstars Predate the Existence of Modern Porn

The Lesson- Ancient Greece had independent ladies

In ancient Greece, a prostitute was known as a porni, which forms the root word for the “porn” in “pornography”. However, there was a higher class of female socialite that rubbed elbows with the wealthy, called the Hetaerae, and these women were the most independent and powerful women in Ancient Greece. Where most women in most Greek states were confined to the home and considered to be the property of their husbands, a Hetaira was permitted by society to cultivate her own wealth, own her own property, and even choose the men she took as lovers; she could invite them or snub them at her leisure. She was a courtesan and a mistress, but one that was independent and sexually autonomous in a way that other ancient women of the time were not. The famous Athenian Hetaira Phryne was so wealthy she was rumoured to have offered to finance the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes following its sacking in 336 BC by Alexander the Great.

Reference: Home Life of the Ancient Greeks, Wikipedia entry on Hetaira

Many Ancient Cultures Did In Fact Have Female Warriors On The Front Line

The Lesson- You can’t keep a boss bitch down

Madame Chang, alias the Dragon Lady, was a Chinese pirate queen and the single most powerful pirate to ever live. She had the largest pirate fleet in recorded history: over 1,000 junks.

There is a legend among the Celts that a Roman captain captured a powerful chieftain’s wife, and rather than execute her as a prisoner, he used her as a hostage to get a ransom from her husband to make himself rich. Over the course of her captivity, he raped her. Romans didn’t particularly think it was a big deal to rape a woman hostage, as they didn’t treat women very well to begin with and they considered the Celts to be subhuman. When the Celtic chief showed up at the meeting to negotiate the ransom payment for his wife, he said to her, “Wife, a good thing is faith.” Waiting carefully for her moment to act, she sprung into action, overpowered her Roman rapist, killed him with his own sword, cut his head off, and presented it to her husband. She said, “A better thing is being the only living man that has slept with me.”

Boudica is another example of a female warrior. She was a British queen who inherited her kingdom from her father, who was a Roman ally. In his will, he passed on his kingdom jointly to his wife and daughters and to Rome, with the expectation that they would continue to rule jointly as allies. Rome reneged on the will, threw Boudica out, flogged her, raped her daughters, and took over the kingdom.

This triggered one of history’s greatest revenge sprees. Boudica led a rebellion against Rome that nearly burned Britain to the ground and almost caused Emperor Nero to pull out of the British Isles. Her rebellion involved the sacking of three Roman colonies and killed between 70,000 and 80,000 Romans and Briton partisans. She was finally defeated by the Roman general Suetonius, but was never captured. Roman historians argued that she either committed suicide to avoid capture or died of her battle wounds.

Reference: A Brief History of the Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis

Prostitution is Not Safe... For Anyone.

The Lesson- There were wolves in sheep’s clothing in every profession.

History is littered with the graves of women who died poor and alone, victims of human trafficking and exploitation. Japan’s Geisha districts were full of prostitute graveyards full of young women who succumbed to lead poisoning from their makeup, and Jack the Ripper famously preyed on streetwalkers in Victorian London. However, to assume that all the victims of sex work were women over the ages is a mistake, and the oldest profession was full of black widows that preyed on unsuspecting johns.

One of the worst hives of scum and villainy in recorded history was San Francisco during and following the Gold Rush. At its peak, San Francisco was one of the world capitals of prostitution and had the largest brothel in the world. It was also infamous for having the most murderous and cunning working girls in the country, who prowled the saloons and dives of the Barbary Coast, San Francisco’s most violent and dangerous red-light district.

Throughout history, most of the exploring, colonizing, and manifesting of destiny was done by the convicts, runaways, ne’er-do-wells, and economically disadvantaged men. The women who followed these men across the various frontiers of the world were no different. Some Barbary Coast prostitutes were dangerous murderers that would seduce johns to rob them, only ever actually sleeping with them as a last resort. These women spiked drinks with opiates and barbiturates, hit men with blackjacks and slung shots to give them concussions, used sleight of hand tricks and fake doors and panels to disappear or enable pickpocketing, and dumped their victims in gutters and left them for dead.

It was very common for them to work in pairs, with one girl seducing the victim while the other drugged his drink or hit him over the head. Once he was knocked out, the girls would run his pockets, take all his valuables, and call a bouncer to drag the victim into the alley. Because the johns were often overdosed with a lethal cocktail of drugged alcohol, and then knocked out with a concussion, many of them died in the alleys where they were left.

Reference: The Barbary Coast, by Herbert Asbury

Doozy84 had his book, Hell Patrol, published in 2022. Find it here on Smashwords.


Title image by Erik Mclean from Pexels and used with their kind permission.