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Category: Women in History

  1. On This Day: Death of Bertha von Suttner

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    On 21st June 1914 the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha von Suttner, died in Vienna. She was the second woman, after Marie Curie, to become a Nobel laureate, and like Marie Curie her life was one of frequent turmoil.

    Impoverished ChildhoodBertha-von-Suttner

    Bertha was born on 9th June 1843 in Austria. Her father, who predeceased her, was a younger son of a prominent Austrian aristocratic family, but her mother was the daughter of a "mere" cavalry officer. As a younger son, her father hadn't inherited any property or wealth that he could leave to his wife and child, and as a result they lived in the household of Landgrave Friedrich zu Furstenberg, along with Bertha's aunt and cousin.

    Bertha had a decent education, despite living as a poor relation, and became fluent in multiple languages including English and Italian. But after the Landgrave died the family finances grew more precarious, not helped by Bertha's mother, who frequently gambled away what little money they had in a desperate attempt to turn the family fortunes around. Bertha received several marriage proposals from older wealthy men, but she declined all of them. Instead she went to work as a tutor in the home of Karl von Suttner, whose daughters needed a companion. It was here that Bertha met and fell in love with the brother of her charges. Arthur von Suttner. The family were scandalised by the relationship, not only was Bertha from a poor family but Arthur was seven years younger than her.

    She moved to Paris where she spent a short period of time working as a secretary for Alfred Nobel. But while she developed a friendship with Nobel, she was committed to Arthur, and she returned to Vienna for a secret wedding.


    The elopement meant that the newly married couple decided to leave Austria and relocate to Georgia. Through Bertha's aristocratic connections, they were received by the ruling Prince Niko of the Dadiani family, but they didn't receive the patronage they might have hoped for. They earned money through teaching the children of the local aristocracy, and writing for Austrian newspapers on the on-going political crisis between Russia and Turkey. In the following years they moved several times and had to find more creative ways to earn money, including accountancy, design, and further newspaper and magazine articles.

    Bertha in particular was a keen writer, and slowly began to work on more political articles. In 1883 her first political work "Inventory of the Soul" was published, in which Bertha put forward her own pro-disarmament views. Her mother died in 1884, but this made their financial problems worse as Bertha became responsible for the payment of her mother's debts. As hostilities in Georgia increased, the couple grew increasingly anxious for their safety. Luckily by this point the Von Suttner family had come round to the idea of their son's marriage, and they were invited back to Austria, settled at Harmannsdorf.

    Fighting for Peace

    By now Bertha was committed to the cause of peace, and dedicated the rest of her life to the pacifist movement. In 1889 her celebrated novel "Lay Down Your Arms!" was published, eventually being translated in to 12 languages and covering 37 editions. She kept up an active correspondence with philosophers and activists, and became co-founder and chairwoman of the German Peace Society. With her husband's death in 1902 she had to leave Harmannsdorf and return to Vienna, from where she travelled to Berlin for the International Congress of Women and then the United States for a peace conference in Boston.

    In 1905 she received the Nobel Peace Prize, founded by her old employer Alfred Nobel. She was only the second woman to become a Nobel laureate, and it's generally believed that it was her friendship with Nobel that led to him including the Peace Prize in his foundation plans. She continued to campaign for peace even as Europe ground closer to war, attending further conferences in the Netherlands and collecting signatories to petitions for peace.

    Perhaps it was a blessing that she died just weeks before the First World War broke out. Despite suffering from cancer, she had been planning on attending another peace conference in Vienna. Although she is often forgotten as a Nobel Prize woman laureate (in favour of Marie Curie) her contribution to the peace movement, through her writing and tireless campaigning, was enormous.

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  2. On This Day: Birth of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

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    Today is a resounding Happy Birthday to one of my favourite women in history - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson! She dedicated her life to studying medicine, becoming the first British woman to become a doctor, and then ran hospitals, public health programmes, and trained other women to follow in her footsteps.

    Becoming a Doctor

    Elizabeth was the second of twelve children, and grew up with her parents and siblings in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Her father was a wealthy business owner, and Elizabeth and her sister were sent to a private girl's school in London. Even in her teens Elizabeth was unhappy with a woman's lot in life - she would complain in later years that her school hadn't taught maths or science. After she finished school she maintained her own education, studying latin in her spare time while helping her mother around the house and looking after her younger brothers and sisters.ElizGarAnderson

    Through mutual friends, Elizabeth came in contact with the social reformer Emily Davies. She also joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, which helped organise a meeting between her and Elizabeth Blackwall, the first American woman to become a doctor. This meeting spurred Elizabeth on to become a doctor herself, and although her father originally disagreed with her plans, he eventually changed his mind and fully supported her.

    At the time there was no route for a woman to become a doctor, and all the usual paths that were open to men refused to help a woman.  Elizabeth first trained as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, and once she had proved that she could cope with operations she was allowed to receive private tuition in Latin and Greek (for correct terminologies and the identification of medicinal plants) and the production of medicines, although the Hospital still refused to let her sign up as a medical student. Her father paid for a tutor for anatomy and physiology, and she was allowed to attend dissections at the hospital, until the male students complained and had her banned from the room. By this time she had taken her first exams and received certificates in chemistry and medicine, but her applications to multiple medical schools were again refused.

    Elizabeth was eventually accepted by the Society of Apothecaries, who were not allowed to refuse admission to women. She continued to receive private tuition, although the medical schools were not keen on accepting women, some of their professors were less discriminatory. She received her licence to practise medicine in 1865, after receiving the highest marks in the exam group.

    Doctor Garrett

    Elizabeth was keen to assist poor women, opening an outpatient dispensary for women and children that saw over nine thousand outpatients in it's first year. She also furthered her studies by learning French, which allowed her to apply for a medical degree at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. More work began to come to Elizabeth's door; she was elected to the London School Board, which controlled the building and running of schools, and became a visiting physician at a children's hospital, but demand for her dispensary and private practise meant that she resigned both positions after a few years to concentrate on her original work. The dispensary became a women and children's hospital, and moved to large premises in Marylebone. She also co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, the first teaching hospital that accepted women as students.

    She was finally accepted by the British Medical Associate in 1873, who promptly pulled the ladder up behind her by changing their rules to state women were not allowed to join. But while some negative rule changes were being made, more positive ones were also taking place - London University allowed women to enrol on it's medical course in 1873. Elizabeth spent the rest of her life working in medicine, along with running her hospital and treating patients, she also passed on her skills and knowledge to the other women who wished to follow her. She married James George Skelton Anderson in 1871, and had three children with him - their daughter Louisa also became a doctor.

    In her retirement, Elizabeth continued to set new records for women, in 1908 she became the first woman to become mayor of Aldeburgh. She campaigned for women's suffrage, although she disagreed with the more militant side of things and distanced herself from their activities. She died in 1917, having never seen women's receive the right to vote. But she did see the change in the world after she set a trail for women doctors, as more and more women signed up to medical courses, and found themselves accepted by the institutions who had once said "no". 

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  3. On This Day: Death of Katherine Swynford

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    On this day, 10th May 1403, one of medieval England's most well-known, or notorious (depending on your point of view) women passed away. Given how her life had caused such a scandal, it comes a bit of a surprise to know that her passing was barely noted by the chronicles of the time.

    A Respectable Wife

    Katherine de Roet was the daughter of a minor nobleman from Hainault, now in modern-day Belgium. He came to England in the service of Philippa of Hainault on her marriage to Edward III of England, and Katherine was raised in the royal nursery in the company of the princes and princesses of England. She was married to a rather impoverished English knight, Hugh Swynford, and Katherine Swynford became the name that history remembered her under. Her husband's manor was at Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, but the land was poor and the family often struggled for money. Katherine had several children by Hugh (the exact number is difficult to confirm) and raised them at Kettlethorpe.

    Hugh's death around 1371 or 1372 left Katherine in dire financial straights. However here her Royal connections helped. Katherine had served in the household of John of Gaunt in the past, and as a widow she was taken back in to his household, where she was put in charge of the ducal nursery. At some point during this part of her life, she and John began their affair. Their first child was a son named John, who was born some time in 1373.

    Infamous Mistress

    But while Katherine was widowed, John wasn't. His first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had died but he had married a second time to a Spainish princess, Constance of Castile. This marriage was not particularly happy, and John may have had several affairs before he and Katherine began their relationship. Katherine went on to have three sons and a daughter by John, who were given the surname "Beaufort".

    Even though they were discreet, the news of their affair got out eventually, and Katherine was slandered as a whore in the chronicles. Public opinion had swung against John, and the news of his relationship didn't help. During the Peasant's Revolt John's beautiful Savoy Palace was looted and burned to the ground, and he seemed to take this as a sign of divine disapproval for his behaviour. He and Katherine ended their relationship, and John settled down to focus on his wife and her Castilian inheritance.

    Scandalous Marriage

    This separation would not last. Several years later their relationship was resumed, and when Constance died in 1394 John further scandalised the country by marrying Katherine. The poor noblewoman of no particular family was suddenly elevated to the position of Duchess of Lancaster, making her second in the land after the Queen of England. People couldn't complain too loudly though, as King Richard II, John's nephew, seemed to approve the match, and no one would argue too loudly with the king.

    Katherine outlived her husband by four years, and spent her widowhood quietly. She was welcome at court by King Richard, and then later by her stepson King Henry IV, but she appears to have spent most of her time in Lincolnshire. On her death she was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, and in time her daughter Joan Beaufort would be buried next to her. Her Swynford children had distinguished enough careers, but it was her Beaufort descendants by John that would go far. In 1485 her great great grandson, Henry Tudor, would claim the throne of England, and make her an ancestress of the English royal family.

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  4. On This Day: Birth of Isabella of Castile

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    On this day in 1451, Isabella of Castile was born. At the time of her birth she would have been seen as nothing more than a future wife for some foreign king, but she would go on to set up a new role for women in the medieval period; determined, forceful, and a ruler in her own right.


    Isabella's father, King John II of Castile, died when Isabella and her younger brother Alfonso were just three years old and less than a year old respectively. The children and their mother, Isabella of Portugal, lived in the castle at Arevalo. Isabella's older half brother, Henry, was now King, but he appears to have kept his step-mother and her children in relative poverty. The household was frequently short of money, but historians are unsure if this was deliberate policy on Henry's part, or simple incompetence.Isabella of Castile

    At the age of ten Isabella and Alfonso were summoned back to the Spanish court. Henry's wife Joan was due to give birth, and the impending arrival of a new heir to the throne meant that the King wanted to keep a closer eye on his half-siblings, who were also in the line of succession. The legitimacy of Henry's daughter was questioned from the moment the pregnancy was announced. It had taken the couple seven years to conceive their first child, and there were rumours that Joan had taken a lover, to make up for her husband's lack of fertility.

    It would have been in the middle of this politically turbulent time that Isabella would have begun to understand just how important a daughter or sister could be. Should Henry die without a legitimate male heir, then her younger brother Alfonso would be King, and she would be first in line after him. When Alfonso died in 1468, Isabella became the new focus of Henry's opposition.

    Unwanted Husbands

    As part of a political settlement between Henry and Isabella, the subject of her marriage fell to a mutual agreement. Isabella would not marry without her half-brother's permission, and Henry would not force her to marry against her will. Henry quickly betrayed his promise, putting immense pressure on Isabella to agree to marry King Alfonso V of Portugal. When this failed, he attempted to force her to marry Charles, Duke of Barry, a brother of Louis XI of France.

    Instead Isabella went behind Henry's back, and arranged her own marriage. She had been betrothed to Ferdinand of Aragon as a child, and the Aragonese royal family were still keen for this match to go ahead. At a time when she should have obeyed her brother, as her nearest male relative, Isabella turned her back on generations of tradition. Announcing that she was visiting her brother Alfonso's tomb, Isabella left Henry's court, travelled to Valladolid, and married Ferdinand in October 1469. 

    The Warrior Queen

    Isabella's defining image in history, is as a woman who was not afraid to be near battles. After Henry's death, she had to spend several years of her life fighting for the Castilian throne. She was pregnant at least seven times, giving birth to five live babies, one boy and four girls. She was considered Queen of Castile in her own right, and had to balance reviving a kingdom that was worn down by years of war and neglect, with being a wife and mother, and facing opposition from those who didn't want a woman in charge.

    At the same time, she and Ferdinand dedicated years to the work that would come to define their lives. With Castile and Aragon, two of the largest kingdoms in Spain, now unified by their marriage, they began to look at dominating the rest of Spain. The "Reconquista", as it became known, saw them conquer more and more cities in Spain, and drive out the Muslim population that had been ruling them for generations. Isabella was part of the discussions on the war, she travelled with her husband when he went out to battle, and she ensured that their troops were supplied with everything they needed on the way. She was seen wearing armour and riding out among her soldiers, encouraging them to the build-up to battle. Although she didn't fight herself, she was certainly for more active that many women in a similar position, who were expected to stay at home and wait for news.

    There were more unpleasant sides to Isabella's character. She was raised in a strict, religious household, and once the Reconquista was complete she would allow on-going persecution of Spain's Jewish population, as well as expelling all Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism. It was through Isabella and Ferdinand that the Spanish Inquisition gained it first foothold in the country, leading to decades of persecution, torture and murder of people who were considered to be not Catholic enough.

    Despite this, there is no doubt that Isabella was an incredible woman for her time. No one would have expected it at the time, but the tiny baby born on 22 April 1451, would go on to show the world a different kind of Royal woman.

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  5. On This Day: Birth of Mary Tudor, Queen of France

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    On 18th March 1496, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York became parents to a second daughter. The baby girl was named Mary, and like her older sister Margaret and her brother Henry, she would go on to have an interesting marital history.

    Queen of FranceMary Tudor

    Like many English princesses, and like her siblings Arthur and Margaret, Mary was required to play a key role in the political aspirations of her father. England's traditional enemies were Scotland in the north, and France in the south, while the old kingdom of Castile had been both ally and enemy, and the duchy of Burgundy had been a long-term friend and trading partner. It was natural then that Henry would want to bolster England's standing by contracting marriages that would neutralise it's enemies, while bringing it's old friends in to a closer relationship.

    For Arthur it was the famous marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Arthur and Catherine were distantly related, and their marriage was a way of reaffirming England's old ties to Spain. Margaret on the other hand had been earmarked for Scotland in her infancy, a potential marriage between her and King James IV had been discussed for the first time when she was just six years old, and their marriage was celebrated in 1503.

    For Mary there was less certainty. Originally she was betrothed to Charles Habsburg, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. Mary was four years older than her intended husband, and had to wait until he was considered old enough to marry her. This meant that she was still unmarried at the age of seventeen, when the match was called off in favour of a peace treaty with France. In 1514 the eighteen year old princess married King Louis XII of France, who was fifty two years old and had already been married twice.

    Mary became step-mother to two girls, Claude and Renee, but Louis had no living son at the time of his third marriage. She would no doubt had known that there was a lot of pressure on her, but luckily for Mary she didn't need to face the same worries as her sister-in-law Catherine, as Louis was dead nearly three months after their wedding in January 1501.

    Duchess of Suffolk

    Since Louis had died without a male heir, the French throne went to his cousin Francis. The new King of France was keen to arrange Mary's second marriage in a way that would benefit him, while in England Mary's brother was determined that it would be arranged to suit himself. However Mary took matters in to her own hands and married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, in secret just months after Louis' death.

    Charles was a close friend of Henry, but originally it looked as if even that wouldn't be enough to save his life. Henry was furious that his sister had been married without his permission, and the English court was horrified by the idea of Brandon marrying a woman with such a high social status. There was even talk of Brandon being executed for his behaviour, but in the end his old friendship with Henry and Mary's own close relationship with her brother won out. He and Mary had to pay an enormous fine, but they were allowed back in the country and were given a second wedding ceremony at Greenwich Palace, with Henry attending.

    Mary settled back in to life in England, spending most of her time on her husband's estate in Suffolk. Through Charles she once again became a step-mother to two girls, and she had four children of her own. When at court she appears to have been a friend of Catherine of Aragon, in later years she would side with the Queen of England against Anne Boleyn. But she didn't live to see her brother's on-going marital dramas. She died in June 1533, and was buried at Bury St Edmunds. It was through her that Lady Jane Grey would eventually make her own claim to the English throne, as Mary's eldest daughter Frances was Jane's mother.