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Only in the last century have women been able to assume positions of power en masse. But there have always been women who, despite male dominance in their time, have managed to take and wield power so spectacularly that their lives still inspire us.
I would start with the queen of the desert, the fabulous Zenobia of Palmyra, who defeated the Romans to control the entire Middle East for a while. What we know about her is admirably condensed in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Zenobia claimed to be a distant cousin of Cleopatra, and that Egyptian siren and strategist cannot be ignored. So read about her, and the roles played by the Ptolemaic queens with their propensity for incest, murder and power, in Sally Ann Ashton's The Last Queens of Egypt " Cleopatra's Royal House.
Our earliest home-grown female icon is Boudica, the warrior queen of the Iceni, who, in the first century AD, took on the Roman legions after the rape of her daughters, and slaughtered 70,000 men before she was quelled. The most recent account is Vanessa Collingridge's Boudica.
My next choice would be Eleanor of Aquitaine. One of the most controversial and colourful personalities of the Middle Ages, she wielded power across Europe through her marriages to the future King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, through her own suzerainty of the great Duchy of Aquitaine, and through her sons, King Richard (the Lionheart) and King John. Imprisoned for 15 years by Henry, who could not abide her meddling, Eleanor emerged " after his death " a wiser woman who continued to exercise immense influence. Undoubtedly the best biography of her is Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine.
No library on this subject would be complete without the two great queens of the Early Modern period. Include Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset and Catherine de Medici by Leonie Frieda. Catherine the Great is not " to my mind " particularly admirable, but she is certainly great and another woman worth knowing about. Her Memoirs have recently been translated by Hilde Hoogenboom.
Within living memory, there are a host of women who should be explored. Eleanor Roosevelt by Russell Freedman reveals a determined and caring woman who used her power quietly, insisting on a life of her own within the White House. Indira by Katherine Franks is a detailed and fascinating biography of Indira Gandhi who, in a sense, was a torch bearer for Thatcher. The latter is so well known that, like Churchill, Wellington and Nelson, she needs no first name to identify her. Begin with the Iron Lady's memoirs, The Downing Street Years.
The women's suffrage movement of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be omitted, and an invaluable guide to those involved is Votes for Women by Joyce Marlow. Of them all, Emily Davies " who was opposed to the militant tactics of Pankhurst et al, but who arguably served women better by founding Girton College to ensure that women could obtain a university education " left her own fascinating account in The Higher Education of Women.
Mary S Lovell's 'Bess of Hardwick' is published by Little, Brown (pounds 20)
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