Telling Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Sarah Gristwood

A couple of weeks ago, responding to a question from Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, I said that Sarah Gristwood’s Game of Queens and Blood Sisters:the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses transformed the way I think about women’s roles in medieval and early modern European power politics. I must admit that I reached out to her about doing this with no expectation that she would say yes. I was thrilled when she agreed.

As you can see, she is an accomplished author on many front:

After leaving Oxford, Gristwood began work as a journalist, writing at first about the theatre as well as general features on everything from gun control to Giorgio Armani. But increasingly she found herself specialising in film interviews – Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro; Martin Scorsese and Paul McCartney. She has appeared in most of the UK’s leading newspapers – The Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph (Daily and Sunday) – and magazines from Sight and Sound to The New Statesman.

Turning to history she wrote two bestselling Tudor biographies, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen and Elizabeth and Leicester; and the eighteenth century story Bird of Paradise: The colourful career of the first Mrs Robinson which was selected as Radio 4 Book of the Week. She also published a book on iconic dresses, Fabulous Frocks (with Jane Eastoe); and a 50th anniversary companion to the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as co-authoring The Ring and the Crown, a book on the history of royal weddings. Her most recent non-fiction books are Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe (2016) Blood Sisters: the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (2012), The Story of Beatrix Potter (2016) and Vita and Virginia: A Double Life (2018). She has also published two historical novels, The Girl in the Mirror and The Queen’s Mary.

A regular media commentator on royal and historical affairs, Sarah was one of the team providing Radio 4’s live coverage of the royal wedding; and has since spoken on royal and historical stories from the royal babies to the reburial of Richard III for Sky News, Woman’s Hour, BBC World, Radio 5 Live, and CBC. She has contributed to a number of television documentary series on cinema and fashion, as well as on history and the monarchy. Shortlisted for both the Marsh Biography Award and the Ben Pimlott Prize for Political Writing, she is a Fellow of the RSA, and founder member of the Women’s Equality Party.

Take it away, Sarah:

You often write about women who were powerful in their own time, but who are largely overlooked today.  Why do you think we tend to forget the roles women play in history?

I guess it’s partly to do with the sources. If like me you write mostly about women from the fairly distant past – an era before diaries, or novels – then you soon discover that women who fight no battles and pass no laws don’t feature largely there. But I’m not sure that’s the whole story. There has for centuries been a tendency to subsume a woman’s activities into the achievements of the men around them. History is in the hands of those who write it, and that has long been men.

You write both historical fiction and historical non-fiction.  Is your research process different for fiction than for non-fiction?  How do you walk the line between historical fact and fiction in a novel?

In one way I’m not sure researching for a novel isn’t harder than for non-fiction! You need to know the broad political and social background, but you also need to know the kind of stuff that isn’t in the history books; like, exactly what people did when they first got up in the mornings.

As for the line between fact and fiction . . . That’s the $64,000 question, as they say. I think it’s about shades of grey, not black and white, and everyone makes their own deal with the issue. I myself would not be easy writing anything that went against the historical situation as I understood it.  But at the same time I don’t really see the point of historical fictions that simply retell the known facts with a little embroidery. Is that contradictory? Maybe.

You’ve written about a lot of interesting women.  Do you have a favorite?

Yes, I do – Arbella Stuart, the subject of my first historical biography. A figure of real political importance in her own day, expected to inherit the throne of her kinswoman Elizabeth I, and yet largely unknown today. A woman who  escaped abroad disguised as a man in order to marry the man she loved; who left some extraordinary self-revelatory letters; and who may have inspired ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. OK, she made some huge mistakes, and you probably wouldn’t want to have been stuck on a desert island with her. But you could hardly ask for a better subject of a biography!

As for a question to you, I think you’ve pretty much asked all the good ones. But perhaps I could turn one question back to you with a slight twist, so:   In the course of your research, what have you found that makes you feel most strongly a connection with women (or a woman) from the past? Or, alternatively, what have you found that makes you feel the past really was another country, and they did do things differently there?’

There were certainly a lot of points in researching Women Warriors where I was deeply aware of the differences between my world and that of the women I wrote about. But the point where the gulf seemed the widest when I was writing about women who disguised themselves as men. Their disguises often involved nothing more than cutting off their hair, putting on men’s clothing, and adopting a few “mannish” habits. Their primary disguise was what people expected to see. Until the mid-twentieth century, trousers in general and military uniforms in particular were such a strong male symbol in Europe and the Americas that it was difficult for observers to recognize the wearer was a woman as long as she made some effort to “walk like a man”, even in cases where the woman did not fit any standard ideas of masculinity.

Interestingly, a number of women were “outed” by children, who apparently were less easily confused by a pair of trousers than the adults around them.


Interested in learning more about Sarah Gristwood and her work?

Check out her website:

Follow her on Twitter: @SarahGristwood

(Drop in tomorrow for the next Telling Women’s History interview: I’ve got an entire month of some of my favorite history people talking about the work they do and how they do it. Next up: Erin Blakemore, journalist and author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf.

Telling Women’s History: Three Questions and An Answer with Stacy Cordery

Stacy Cordery has a sentence on her website that has become a touchstone for me as I poke at a couple of possible topics for my next book: “When one interesting individual intersects with larger social forces then historical biography is born.”

She practices what she preaches in her own work. Cordery is the author of four books, most recently a biography of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low (Viking, 2012)* and of Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Viking, 2007). She is currently completing a biography of cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden for Viking. At Iowa State University, where she is professor of History and an affiliate faculty member with the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, Cordery teaches the History of First Ladies, the Gilded Age, and the modern U.S. survey. Before coming to ISU in 2016, Cordery taught for 22 years at Monmouth College. She is the visiting distinguished historian of the Theodore Roosevelt Center and serves as treasurer for SHGAPE.

Cordery is a sought-after speaker who has appeared on C-SPAN, the Diane Rehm Show, the History Channel, the Smithsonian Channel, and NPR’s Weekend Edition. She’s given talks at, among others places, the Wilson Center, the National Constitution Center, the Miller Center, Printers Row Lit Fest, and the Savannah Book Festival.

[*Note from PT: I’m reading it in little bites right now and it is wonderful.]

Take it away Stacy:

If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

After having written her biography, I truly believe that Juliette Gordon Low should be in every textbook at every level. Low founded the most important organization for girls and women in this nation when she created the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. in 1912. Girl Scouting had a profound impact on girls, certainly, but also on women. I think we forget that the women who stepped up to lead troops or to volunteer at the council level learned all manner of things. They received training in whole skill sets—leadership, accounting, first aid, communication, engineering, chemistry, nursing, survival techniques—which oftentimes translated into later remunerative work. In the early years of Girl Scouting in particular, this was training they could not readily get anywhere else. The works and the impact of individual Girl Scouts, local troops, and Girl Scouts on the state and national level still need to be researched, analyzed, and written about. When my biography came out in 2012, one-half of all American women had some connection to Girl Scouting. I think that everyone should know about the female founder of an organization that is still in existence—and still doing good work—over one hundred years after its creation, especially as that organization is largely led by women and remains committed to its original mission of helping girls and their communities. It is mystifying to me that she’s not as well known as Andrew Carnegie or Jane Addams.

What’s it like to live with a subject of your biography for a period of years?

My undergraduate degree is in Theater and I liken it a bit to acting in that I feel I must try to get inside her head. It’s also partly like meeting a new friend—you work really hard to understand her, to see her point of view, to analyze how her past has shaped the decisions she made, to empathize when you can and sympathize when you can’t. You try to keep her circle of friends straight and pay attention to which friends play what roles in her life. You listen hard to her words and to her silences. The big differences are that since my biographical subjects are in fact not my friends, I can talk about them incessantly to my colleagues! I can second-guess them! I can—indeed I must—go looking for verification of whatever they say, write, or do. I have to step back at some point, lose the empathy, and challenge everything I think I’ve learned so that I can look at her and her life from many sides—some not complimentary, some not even very nice. I do find people endlessly fascinating and that’s why I think I’m a biographer. My subjects have frustrated me, annoyed me, amused me, and taught me a great deal. They have never bored me.

What’s you next book and when will we see it?

I’m under contract with Viking/Penguin for a biography of Elizabeth Arden. Here’s another woman about whom we know far too little. Arden was an immigrant and hers was a rags-to-riches story. At one point in her life, she was the wealthiest woman in America. Her imprimatur moved make-up from the world of prostitutes and actresses into high society; we’re still living in the wake of that sea change. She was an innovator in several fields, including advertising and merchandising, in addition to all of her inventions connected to beauty and health. She was sole head of her company from its creation c. 1909 until her death in 1966. And, she had a parallel life as “Queen of the Turf.” She raised, bought, sold, and raced thoroughbred horses so successfully that her horse won the Kentucky Derby in 1947. This book allows me to learn about fields I don’t normally encounter—horse racing chief among them!—but she was an influential and important American entrepreneur and CEO. The manuscript is due in 2020, so we should see it in print a year or so later.

Finally, my question for you is my favorite of your questions right back at you: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?—And why?

Over the course of writing Women Warriors, I kept coming back to Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115). In fact, I wrestled with her over and over again because she took over every chapter I tried to put her in.

Matilda’s appearance in history books, to the extent that she appears at all, is generally limited to one incident, known as the Humiliation at Canossa. In 1077, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV arrived as a penitent at her fortress at Canossa to petition Pope Gregory VII for absolution. It’s a dramatic incident, complete with the emperor dressed in sackcloth, standing barefoot in the snow, and begging for admission to the fortress for several days. When Matilda appears in accounts of the event, her role is often limited to that of a peacemaker.

In fact, the Humiliation of Canossa was one brief moment of peace in the Investiture Controversy, an ugly struggle between emperor and pope that was ostensibly over who would control appointments to religious offices and was at root over the relationship between secular and religious power. Matilda, the peacemaker of Canossa, provided the main military support for Gregory and his successors in their struggles with Henry for the next twenty years and became the secular rallying point for the reform cause after Gregory’s death.

Over the course of a forty-year military career, Matilda mustered troops for long-distance expeditions, fought successful defensive campaigns against the Holy Roman emperor (himself a skilled commander), launched ambushes, engaged in urban warfare, directed sieges, lifted sieges, and was besieged. She built, stocked, and fortified castles. She maintained an effective intelligence network. She negotiated alliances with local leaders. She rewarded her followers with the favorite currencies of medieval rulers: land, castles, and privileges.

Matilda was both a skilled military commander and a key player in the most important political and theological issue of her time. (Basically the same thing in eleventh century Europe.) Her name means “mighty in war” and she lived up to it.

Want to know more about Stacey Cordery and her books?

Check out her website:
Follow her on Twitter: @StacyCordery

(Drop in on Monday for another Telling Women’s History interview. I’ve got an entire month of some of my favorite history people talking about the work they do and how they do it. Next up: Sarah Gristwood, author of numerous biographies of historical women, including Vita and Virginia: a Double Life.)

Telling Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Kim Nielsen

Dr. Kim Nielsen is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, where she also teaches courses in History and Women’s & Gender Studies. Her scholarship explores disability, gender, and citizenship throughout U.S. history. Nielsen’s latest book is A Disability History of the United States (Beacon Press), the first analysis of disability throughout United States history and covers the period prior to European arrival through the present. Other books include Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Beacon, 2009) and The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYUP, 2004). Nielsen holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Iowa.

She’s also a fellow Beacon Press author, which in my opinion is the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval for challenging and engaging writing on important subjects. (My fellow Beacon-ites are an impressive bunch. I see myself as the class clown in the group.)

Take it away, Kim.

 What have you read lately that you loved? 

I read Naomi Alderman’s ­The Power several months ago and haven’t been able to get it out of my head. It reads like a straightforward, captivating story, but the more one sits with it the more complicated, disturbing, and thought provoking it becomes.  I had no idea of the beginning’s significance until the end.  Next month my book club reads this book. I’ve picked it up again, am enjoying rereading it, and am eager to discuss it.

[Note from PT: How did I miss this one? Adding it to the reading list.]

What’s your next book about and when is it coming out?

My next book is Mrs. Dr. Anna Ott: A 19th Century Life of Money, Marriage, and Madness—and will be out in late 2019.  This is a biography of a completely unknown woman who survived two tumultuous marriages, one of which included substantial domestic violence, garnered significant financial resources, served as a physician, and died after 20 years in an insane asylum. It’s a fascinating story and I’ve learned so much about marriage law, institutionalization, and the consequences of a stigmatized diagnosis.

What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women? 

Women change their names when they get married—sometimes multiple times!  Why?!?  This often literally erases women historically and makes it difficult to find them.  It is also a part of how family can subsume women in history in both subtle and direct ways.

My question for you:  How did you come to love history?

One of my favorite things to do when I was small was curl up next to my grandmother and ask her “What did you do when you were a little girl?” From there it was a short step to reading biographies about historical women who ignored social boundaries and accomplished things—the kind that are written with the intention of inspiring young girls. My grade school’s revolving library owned a whole series of them. Every week a new one arrived and I snatched it before anyone else could get it, eager to read about Clara Barton, Madame Curie or Julia Ward Howe. (Just so you know, Women Warriors isn’t that kind of book.)

By the time I was in high school, I was that nerdy kid who hung out at the local historical society and Wilson Creek National Battlefield on the weekends.

(Drop in on tomorrow for another Telling Women’s History interview. I’ve got an entire month of some of my favorite history people talking about the work they do and how they do it. Next up: Stacy Cordery, author of Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girls Scouts)