May 2nd in (Feminist) History

portrait_of_unknown2c_formerly_known_as_claude_de_france_28corneille_de_lyon2c_1535-15402c_pushkin_museum29On this day in 1536, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, was arrested and imprisoned on (false) charges incest, treason, adultery, and witchcraft. In truth, Anne Boleyn was essentially arrested because she could not give King Henry VIII a son; after three miscarriages, and with Henry courting Jane Seymour, Anne was simply in the way. True, the fact of Anne Boleyn being arrested on this day is not really a positive “feminist” fact, but she is important for numerous reasons: Firstly of course, because she was the mother of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who would go on to rule England for almost 45 years, ushering in their Golden Age. Secondly, however, because Anne Boleyn’s life, history, and character has over the years been thoroughly tarnished by the standards of a patriarchal society.

Thanks to both the patriarchal society of the time, and the patriarchal lens through which she is still viewed today, there is a tendency to portray her as a seductress who used her sensuality to lure Henry VIII into falling in love with her, and essentially convinced him with her womanly wiles to divorce his wife Katherine. However it is far more likely that Anne Boleyn was a woman who made the best of what she was essentially forced into. A woman who had no real capability within the society of the time to resist the King’s urges. A woman who told him no again and again, even fleeing with her mother to a safe distance, only to find herself still pursued. A woman who in reality, had no legal or social recourse against him, and thus no choice when it came to accepting his advances; if she continued to deny him any more forcefully, he could easily ruin both her life (by preventing her from ever finding another spouse) and that of her entire family.

“Pursued by a king whose advances she at first resisted, she turned the lust from which she could not escape into a means of achieving power for herself: captured, she became herself the captor. Even in defeat, she was never fully Henry’s. Like the falcon she chose as her emblem, she was a wild creature used, curtailed, but never truly tamed; she was a sexual woman whose vitality belongs only to herself. For years Henry tried vainly to control that vitality; finally, unable to mold it to his purposes, he killed her.” – Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII, by Karen Lindsey.

In the end, Anne did what she could, turning the situation around so that at least she could become Queen, rather than just a mistress who would eventually be tossed aside like all his other mistresses. And for that, she is branded forever a seductress, a witch, an adulterer, etc. Because patriarchy.

(But I like to think that Queen Elizabeth I, her daughter who reigned even longer and far more successfully than her husband, was her last laugh.)

Also on this day:

  • In 1250, Shajar al-Durr, widow of the Ayyubid Sultan As-Salih Ayyub, becomes Sultana of Egypt.
  • In 1999, Mireya Moscoso becomes the first woman to be elected President of Panama.
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