Greetings, lovely guests! The other day I was reading about the Golden Horde, and—
Miss Ashe, we have barely finished mending the place after that ship incident Miss Noble instigated. If you invite an army of Mongolian barbarians to my home I will shut my doors to you forever.
Oh, hello, Lady B! <looking around confused> What are you doing here today?
<lifting her lorgnette> Upon the previous occasion I consulted with Lord B, this was still my house, Miss Ashe.
Ha. Er. What I mean is, you’re not usually here on Saturdays. But no matter, I digress! Speaking of the Golden Horde, as you know when I’m not in the ballroom I’m teaching history—
Lord help us all.
—and last term I taught a course on the interesting ways in which medieval Christianity is represented in modern fiction and film.
You are a remarkably peculiar gel, Miss Ashe.
I know! It was so fun. My students researched and wrote fiction too. One project was about Christian missionaries to the Golden Horde, and it reminded me of how in the Middle Ages Christians told stories of the Mongolian invaders that included thoroughly scandalous details.
Finally a topic of interest.
It was rumored that even the womenof the Golden Horde were savage warriors and that they didn’t pause in their fiendish invasions even to give birth, but bore their children from the saddle. Isn’t that fabulous?
It sounds remarkably uncomfortable.
I daresay. But it got me thinking about scandalous professions for women.
All professions for women are scandalous.
I know you don’t really think that. After all, you share your ballroom with authoresses!
Lady B casts me a look that suggests I’ve just made her point.
But it’s a time-honored reality, my lady. Women have forever been pursuing professions that society considered scandalous. Why, just remember all those mistresses Sabrina brought to the ballroom.
squawk! Scarred for life! squawk!
And speaking of women using their feminine wiles to advantage, one of my favorite ancient plays is the political comedy Lysistrata in which the wives of leaders of the embattled Greek states withhold sex until their husbands call a truce in the war.
Behind the scenes politics. Impressive.
Wasn’t it? And in the Middle Ages there were cross-dressing monks — women in disguise for years and years! — and a famous woman soldier or two as well.
squawk! Pre-guillotine days! squawk!
Yes, Albert, unfortunately Joan of Arc’s military cross-dressing got her burned at the stake in France. But there’s another famous medieval cross-dressing Joan. The legends call her Pope Joan. They discovered she was a woman when she sat down on the papal throne and the bottom fell out of it, revealing the truth.
One wonders why the witness had his head beneath the throne.
Doesn’t one? Those crazy medievals! In fact, just the other day I came across some lovely ladies on twitter— er— that is, at the park chatting about yet another medieval woman whose behavior scandalized everyone. Now… who was that queen…
Ashlyn Macnamara: Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was queen of two kingdoms consecutively, started a civil war between her sons and her husband, and rode bare-breasted to the crusades with her ladies in waiting to rouse the soldiers’ spirits.
And other parts! squawk!
Ah, and here are the very lovely ladies I was tweeting— that is, strolling with the other day! Lady B, may I make you acquainted with Ladies Ashlyn Macnamara, Alyssa Alexander and Tracy Brogran? And you already know Anna Randol (who visited us in January with her dreamy warrior-poet hero!).
Of course I am acquainted with the Dashing Duchesses, you silly gel. Who isn’t?
Katharine: <beaming at the duchesses> It’s wonderful to have you here today, ladies. Will you do me the honor of adding to my list of professions of a scandalous nature for ladies?
Tracy: Well, I’ve heard from a very reliable gossip that there’s an Englishwoman trying to gain admittance to a medical school in New York. Can you imagine? Elizabeth Blackwell is her name. She lives in the Americas now, no wonder. But it’s said that she was allowed entrance only because the administrators thought for certain her application was a ruse.
Tell me the poor gel is at least married. On the other hand, if she isn’t, my fourth cousin thrice removed, that fellow just over there staring down Mrs.
Tracy: Elizabeth chose to never marry. Imagine? A maiden, traveling back and forth between the Americas and our homeland, encountering all sorts of riff-raff. I’m certain she encountered the most nefarious of ne’er do wells. But she did manage to establish quite a few dispensaries to aid the infirmed.
<squawk!> Learning opportunities all round!
Ashlyn: And a chance to ogle a few, er, legs.
Anna: At least she was mending people. Alessandra Giliani in the 14th century— did you ever meet her, Lady B?
Perhaps there is a reason I do not normally attend Saturday salons.
Anna: Alessandra carved them up. She’s credited with being instrumental in developing a way to map the human circulatory system. On cadavers no less. All before she was 19.
Alyssa: Medical school! Anatomists! But no! <fanning herself while searching for her smelling salts> But they weren’t the only women comfortable with a blade.
Do tell. I fear you will whether I allow it or not.
Alyssa: Rumor has it that the Assyrian Queen Sammuramat (also Semiramis) gained the throne in a most nefarious — though clever — way. After impressing the current king with her strategic battle skills, she asked if she could be queen for a day. She promptly had him beheaded, poor sap, and ruled for another couple of decades.
Remarkably clever gel. Though most unpleasant for the king, I should think.
Alyssa: He clearly did not think through her request, alas. And since the rumor is her son had her beheaded, well, she had her comeuppance.
squawk! What goes around, comes around.
Alyssa: Indeed, indeed. I must say, it is only rumor, however. The Greeks rewrote her history a couple of times. But the scandal sheets are always more fun than the truth. <wink> So I shall follow the scandal.
Tracy: Follow the scandal? Shame on you, Lady Alyssa! <she lowers her voice> Come sit by me, will you?
Ashlyn: If we’re going to mention ladies of a military bent, we can’t leave out Boudica, who led an uprising against the Romans. Of course, they took her kingdom away from her, had her flogged and raped her daughters, so some might say they had it coming.
Anna: Or Fu Hao in Shang Dynasty China. Queen, military leader, and high priestess. Trounced the barbarians so soundly they never attacked again. Over a hundred swords, axes, and spears were discovered in her tomb.
<peering through her lorgnette> Fond of weapons, was she?
Katharine: Which puts me in mind of ladies of the sea, with great big gun arsenals at their disposal.
Anna: Ah, those sailors with their large cannons…oh, you meant actual cannons. <clears throat and sips tea>
Tracy: Have you seen the size of their balls? Enormous. The cannon balls, I mean. <fans herself and looks askance>
Katharine: <endeavoring with no little effort to maintain my Serious History Professor-like mask> Yes, indeed, Albert, there was a remarkable number of women who devoted their lives to sailing ships, including female pirates like the infamous Anne Bonny and Mary Read, close friends and both fierce buccaneers.
Alyssa: Scandal! <gasps> How fun!
squawk! Walk the plank! squawk!
Katharine: Neither met a happy end. But that’s what you get for breaking the law.
Ashlyn: Thus, Boudica.
Katharine: Quite! But some ladies like my own Viola Carlyle in How To Be a Proper Lady worked their shipcraft within the confines of the law. Viola is a privateer. Everybody here knows what a privateer is, right?
The duchesses and Albert nod.
Good heavens. Yet another ponderous lesson in history approacheth.
Katharine: Very funny, my lady. A privateer is—
A thief with license! squawk!
Ashlyn: The bird speaks the truth of it.
Katharine: Exactly. As Violet la Vile, Viola is commissioned by the state of Massachusetts to scout out nere-do-wells and haul them into port. And if she wins a lot of booty from the ships she brings in, well that’s how she pays her crewmen.
Anna: <whispering to Albert> Do you suppose she wears trousers? Or has she learned to scramble around in the rigging in her petti…<realizes everyone’s staring, sips tea> I said, isn’t your hero, Captain Jin Seton, a privateer too?
Katharine: Ah, yes! But he holds his commission from the British Navy.
The plot thickens! squawk!
Katharine: As sorry as I am to deviate from speaking of a delicious hero for even a moment, we’re getting away from the point of this writer’s inspiration post. After all, the reason I wanted to talk about this is because of the amazing courage, bravery, and plain old chutzpah these women had to do what they did.
Tracey: Miss Blackwell says, “If society will not admit of women’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” Perhaps she’s on to something.
Katharine: Like Viola, overturning societal conventions. Why just look at her. She’s ripping his “bodice”.
squawk! No guts, no glory! squawk!
Thank you to Ashlyn, Alyssa, Tracy and Anna for visiting the ballroom and inspiring us today! I hope you’ll all dash over to The Dashing Duchesses blog and pay them and their sister duchesses a call. But before you go, tell us what is the most scandalous job you’ve ever had? If you’ve been modest in your employment, then what’s the most scandalous job you could dream of having if you could do anything without suffering any consequences?