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31 European Women c.1500 - 1945


It might seem surprising to devote a list to 50% of the adult European population but, despite the massive, nay uncountable, number of women in the past they have been deeply under represented. As part of Women's History Month - and at the risk of promoting the 'history as individuals' school of thought - I have selected one woman for each of the 31 days and given a summary of each. Although all lived in Europe between 1500 and 1945, these are not the 'best' women from European history, nor are they the most famous, the most important or most overlooked. Instead, they are an eclectic mix to give a flavour.

1. Ada Lovelace

The daughter of Lord Byron, the famous poet and character, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was brought up to focus on the sciences, eventually corresponding with Charles Babbage about his Analytical Engine. Her writing, which focused less on Babbage's machine and more on how information could be processed by it, has seen her labelled the first software programmer. She died in 1852.

2. Anna Maria Von Schurman

One of the leading academics of the seventeenth century, Anna Maria Von Schurman sometimes had to sit behind a screen in lectures because of her sex. Nevertheless, she formed the hub of a European network of learned women, and wrote an important text on how women could be educated.

3. Anne of Austria

Born to Philip III of Spain and Margaret of Austria in 1601, Anne married the 14 year old Louis XIII of France in 1615. As hostilities between Spain and France resumed Anne found elements at court trying to shut her out; nevertheless, she became regent after Louis' death in 1643, demonstrating political skill in the face of widespread troubles. Louis XIV came of age in 1651.

4. Artemisia Gentileschi

An Italian painter following the style pioneered by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi's vivid and often violent art is frequntly overshadowed by the trial of her rapist, during which she was tortured to establish the veracity of her evidence.

5. Catalina de Erauso

Abandoning the life and nunnery her parents had chosen for her, Catalina de Erauso dressed herself as a man and pursued a successful military career in South America, before returning to Spain and revealing her secrets. She recorded her exploits in the perfectly titled "Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World".

6. Catherine de Medici

Born into Europe's famous Medici family, Catherine became Queen of France in 1547, having married the future Henry II in 1533; however, Henry died in 1559 and Catherine ruled as regent until 1559. This was an era of intense religious strife and, despite trying to follow moderate policies, Catherine became associated with, even blamed for, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572.

7. Catherine the Great

Originally a German princess married to the Tsar, Catherine seized power in Russia to become Catherine II (1762 - 96). Her rule was characterised partly by reforms and modernisation, but also by her forceful rule and dominant personality. Unfortunately, the slurs of her enemies usually impinge on any discussion.

8. Christina of Sweden

The Queen of Sweden from 1644 to 1654, during which time she acted in European politics and heavily patronised art, the philosophically minded Christina left her throne, not through death, but through conversion to Roman Catholicism, abdication and resettlement in Rome.

9. Elizabeth I of England

The most famous Queen of England, Elizabeth I was the last of the Tudors and a monarch whose life featured war, discovery and religious strife. She was also a poet, writer and - most notoriously - never married.

10. Elizabeth Bathory

The story of Elizabeth Bathory is still shrouded in mystery, but a few facts are known: at the end of the sixteenth/start of the seventeenth century, she was responsible for the murder, and possibly torture, of young women. Discovered and found guilty, she was walled up as punishment. She has been remembered, probably erroneously, for bathing in the blood of victims; she is also an archetype of the modern vampire.
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