10 Things History Got Wrong About Women!

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A Brief History

On August 12th, 30 B.C., after the naval defeat of her and Mark Antony’s forces against those of Octavian, and in fear of the public humiliation of being dragged through Rome in chains, Cleopatra committed suicide by snake bite.  Cleopatra VII, last Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt, is one of the most written-about women in history, and she has been portrayed in numerous movies. Because she captivated and beguiled two of the most powerful men in the Roman world, it has long been assumed that she possessed beauty of epic proportions. Archaeological finds, however, indicate that this may not have been the case. This article will explore 10 common misconceptions involving famous women in history. These misconceptions may be due to legend, malicious gossip, Hollywood depictions, false reporting, assumptions and guessing or even simple ignorance.

For more things history got wrong, please also refer to the related articles, “10 Things History Got Wrong” Parts One, Deux and Drei.

Digging Deeper

And as for famous women, common misconceptions include beliefs that:

1. Sappho was a Lesbian

Born on the island of Lesbos, from which the word “lesbian” is derived, Sappho is the earliest female poet from the ancient world whose reputation has carried on to the modern world. She was greatly admired during her day, but today only fragments of her poems survive. Though her poems speak of infatuation and love for people of both sexes, there are no descriptions of physical acts between women, and it is unknown whether her works are autobiographical in nature. There are also indications that she was married and had a daughter, which, of course, does not necessary mean she was not a lesbian. Perhaps it is best to try to understand her writing from a 7th century B.C. viewpoint; allusions to homoeroticism were common in Greek literature, but they may have been a form of art and style of writing rather than actual lifestyle. It was only in the 19th century that Sappho began to be associated with female homosexuality and the world “Sapphic” came to describe sexual relations between women. Before then it merely described a type of poetic verse.

2. Cleopatra was a Ravishing Beauty

Personified by actresses such as Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor, how could Cleopatra not be a beauty? Well, ancient coins depicting the Egyptian queen indicate a fairly large, hooked or beaky nose. In other words, years of family incest had ensured that Cleopatra definitely inherited the propensity for a Greek nose, and since artists usually play down uncomplimentary features, it makes you wonder how bad the nose really was… Early coins did show a smaller and more straight nose. Perhaps Cleopatra became more confident about her looks with every Roman general she snagged. Oh, and to clear up a few more misconceptions, Cleopatra was neither an ethnic Egyptian nor sub-Saharan black; she was Greek or more appropriately Macedonian. When Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt, he entrusted it to one of his generals who then founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Ptolemys ruled Egypt as pharaohs and even incorporated the tradition of marrying within the family to maintain the “purity” of the blood. Cleopatra was very lucky she only had the schnoz to worry about… One relatively contemporary quote pertaining to Cleopatra’s beauty, or lack thereof, has survived. The famous ancient Greek historian Plutarch begins, “Her beauty was not exceptional enough to instantly affect those who saw her…” Both Plutarch and other ancient sources indicate that she was highly intelligent, possessed great charm and had a melodic voice. All of this, combined with her great power and wealth, was enough to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony away from their wives. In fact, her lack of beauty made her refine her other skills and attributes; 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal made the interesting observation that, “If Cleopatra’s nose had been any shorter, the whole face of the world might have been changed.” The girl knew how to work it.

3. Boudicca Rode into Battle Breasts Ablazing

Boudicca was the queen of an ancient Celtic Iceni tribe that rebelled against Roman occupation of Britain. When her husband died, the agreement that his kingdom would be inherited by his daughters was ignored by the Romans, who annexed it to their empire. In a display of public humiliation, Boudicca was flogged and her daughters raped. Enraged, Boudicca swore vengeance and led her Inceni tribe as well as neighboring tribes to revolt in an act that overwhelmed the Romans. Many tens of thousands of Romans troops as well as civilians living in Britain were killed and many settlements destroyed in the uprising before Boudicca’s forces were finally put down. This act of near total devastation almost caused Emperor Nero to pull out of Britain entirely. Today many people falsely picture Boudicca riding her chariot into battle, bare-chested. This misconception stems from the Iceni tradition of fighting naked. Whereas her tribesmen may have been shirtless and possibly painted, Boudicca definitely stayed covered up, as no Roman historian has made note of this possibility.

4. Catherine of Aragon was a Dark-Haired and Dark-Eyed Spaniard

Henry VIII of England’s first wife is often depicted as dark-haired and dark-eyed. In reality Catherine of Aragon had strawberry blonde or auburn hair and blue eyes. Even today most Spaniards are thought to have a Mediterranean coloring, but many, especially those in the North of Spain, tend to be more fair-complexioned. A very good example of this is Queen Letizia of Spain, who is native born. Catherine of Aragon also had much English blood running through her veins. Her mother, Isabella of Castile, was a granddaughter of Catherine of Lancaster on one side, and a great-granddaughter of Phillipa of Lancaster on the other, both princesses of the House of Plantagenet. In an ironic twist, it was her successor, or rather “sub-planter,” English-born Anne Boleyn who was dark and swarthy.

5. Elizabeth I Secretly Met with Mary, Queen of Scots

In many dramatic depictions, Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, are shown to meet. Although Mary had often requested to speak with her cousin, these requests were always ignored by Elizabeth. Following unrest in Scotland, Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of her son and fled to England seeking the protection of Elizabeth. Instead of a warm welcome, Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned; Mary had earlier proclaimed herself the true and Catholic queen of England, and Elizabeth was none too pleased about this. As a result, her requests for English help to restore the Kingdom of Scotland to the rightful ruler fell on deaf ears, and Elizabeth let Mary stew in capacity. Eventually, following rebellions and plots to remove Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Elizabeth was forced to have her cousin executed. Though the stories of these two women are so tightly intertwined, they never met. Perhaps it was a case of out of sight, out of mind, or perhaps Elizabeth did not want to appear weak to the rest of Europe and to the Protestant world if she caved in to Mary’s emotional pleas, something that she was definitely more apt to do if she saw her in person.

6. Pocahontas was Married to John Smith

Pocahontas was the first Native American woman to marry an Englishman in what could be deemed the first interracial marriage in North America. The man she married was not John Smith, as often assumed, but rather John Rolfe. Her story is more traditionally connected with the explorer John Smith because it was he who she saved from execution. That is where their stories diverge, however. Years later, Pocahontas was captured by the English and held hostage. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When given a chance to return to her tribe, she chose to remain with the English. It was then that she met and married tobacco planter John Rolfe who at first was hesitant about marrying someone he initially described as a “heathen.” Now parents to one son, they traveled together to England where they were received by Queen Anne, consort to King James I. Before she could return to her homeland, however, Pocahontas died. Most likely she caught an illness for which her immune system was not prepared. She was interred in England, but her husband soon returned to Virginia. Her son would return as an adult. John Smith had not entirely forgotten about her, though. During her travels in England, John Smith remembered how she had saved his life and wrote the queen consort describing the incident and asked her to treat Pocahontas with dignity and respect.

7. Catherine the Great of Russia had Sex with a Horse

Rumors of Catherine the Great’s voracious sexual appetite have been around since her reign. Many of these have their basis in reality; some are malicious creations meant to ruin her reputation. The fact of the matter is Catherine had two things going against her: 1) She was a woman; 2) She was a foreigner. What better way is there to undermine a powerful woman than to make her out to be a nymphomaniac? Of course, Catherine added much fuel to this fire herself. She did have numerous lovers, and some of them may have fathered her children. In her older years, she liked to surround herself with younger, handsome men. But did she have sex with a horse? According to the gossips, not only did she copulate with a horse, but she died after the horse fell on her. The latter part can definitely be disregarded since she died in her bed of a stroke. And the first part, well, that is most definitely a disrespectful fabrication meant to discredit her legacy and to give everyone a good spiteful laugh.

8. Marie Antoinette said, “Let Them Eat Cake!”

This famous expression was not uttered by Marie Antoinette but rather by her predecessor Marie Thérèse, wife of the Sun King Louis XIV. It has since been attributed to Marie Antoinette to show how callous and out of touch with reality she was in regard to the plight of the starving peasants. Of course she never said this in response to being told the peasants had no bread, but it fit the revolutionaries’ agenda to paint her as an uncaring, unsympathetic queen who lived a life of extravagance and decadence while her subjects hungered. Just why Marie Thérèse may have spoken it in the first place has been forgotten in the meantime, but this sentence will forever loom over Marie Antoinette’s head.

9. Anna Anderson was the Grand Duchess Anastasia 

Following the murder of the Romanov family by the Bolsheviks during World War I, rumors persisted that one of the grand duchesses had managed to escape her captors. Two years later in 1920 a woman in Berlin was committed to a mental hospital after trying to commit suicide. First known as “Fräulein Unbekannt” (Miss Unknown) because she did not provide a name, she later claimed to be the missing Grand Duchess Anastasia herself. Surviving relatives of the Romanovs and other exiled Russians came to see her but were not convinced and considered her an imposter. A German court ruled that she did not provide sufficient evidence of her identity. Media coverage made her case notorious, and many truly believed she was Anastasia, despite her inability to speak Russian. In regard to not being able to speak her supposed language, she cited trauma. She took the name Anna Anderson and moved to the United States where she became a minor celebrity. Throngs of believers surrounded her, perhaps hoping that Anastasia was in fact still alive or to possibly cash in on the Romanov inheritance. This myth was further perpetuated by notable Hollywood and animated films, a television miniseries and even a ballet and Broadway musical. It was only after her death and the discovery of the remains of the Romanovs, that a DNA analysis could be performed. The results showed that Anna Anderson could not possibly be Anastasia or any Romanov for that matter. She turned out to be Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness. As Anastasia/Anna Anderson, Franziska had managed to live a lie for nearly 65 years.

10. Jayne Mansfield was Decapitated

Technically the beautiful actress was not decapitated, but she did suffer extensive trauma to the head that resembled scalping when the car she was driving in drove under a slower truck in front of it. The legend that her head got separated from her body sprung from the pictures that were taken of the crash scene, in which the roof of the car had been ripped off and either her blonde wig or scalped forehead was seen in what remained of windshield/hood of the car. The official cause of Jayne Mansfield’s death was determined to be a crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain. An avulsion is a forcible tearing away of a body part by trauma or surgery. In other words she was indeed partially decapitated, but not entirely as commonly believed. Let us hope that death truly was immediate. Thankfully her three children who were asleep on the back seat survived the crash. As not to leave you on a negative note with this horrifying imagery, we direct you to one of our other articles in which the beauty of Jayne Mansfield is celebrated.

For part 2, we refer you to our follow-up article: “History and Headlines Presents 10 More Women Where History Got It Wrong”.

Question for students (and subscribers): Was Cleopatra right to commit suicide?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information on some of these famous women, the following books might be interesting:

Boorstin, Daniel J.  Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected.  Vintage, 1995.

Dunn, Jane.  Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens.  Vintage, 2005.

King, Greg and Penny Wilson.  The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World’s Greatest Royal Mystery.  Wiley, 2011.

Lombardo, Stanley, Sappho, et al.  Poems and Fragments.  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.


About Author

Beth Michaels

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.