The best books to make you think about women and power in history

Susan Broomhall Author Of The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici
By Susan Broomhall

Who am I?

I'm Professor and Director of the Gender and Women’s History Research Centre at the Australian Catholic University. I've always been interested in the power of ideologies about gender to shape people’s lives, and in the experiences of women in times past. I started off exploring these topics in early modern Europe and then looked at how women, and ideas about gender, shaped the ways European peoples engaged in the world at this period. This has helped me to see the very significant ways that the lives of women and men are always shaped by gender ideologies across the globe and across time, and the innovative ways that people respond to the challenges and opportunities that they encounter.


I wrote...

The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici

By Susan Broomhall,

Book cover of The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici

What is my book about?

In this book, I explore how the character of this famous sixteenth-century queen of France and influential mother of three French kings has been represented in different, sometimes contrasting, ways as people have tried to make sense of her behaviour and motivations, in her own time and since. I look at how Catherine de’ Medici herself, along with her allies, supporters, and clients, tried to project a particular story about who she was and why she acted as she did and how her contemporaries responded to this. Some did so positively, but others were deeply hostile to the queen and circulated their own, alternative, ideas about who Catherine was.

The legacy of this deeply contested woman who operated at the heart of French political life can only be understood if we can make sense of how her identity was ‘produced’ in writing, artworks, architecture, fashion, and ceremonies and how these forms had consequences for which aspects of Catherine de’ Medici’s identity have been remembered and reproduced right down to the present day.

The books I picked & why

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When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

By Kara Cooney,

Book cover of When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Why this book?

This is a very accessible introduction to six of the most powerful women of Egypt, women whose actions took place around, and sometimes as, pharaohs. Little-known queens, Merneith, Tawosret, and Neferusobek are considered alongside Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra. This approach helps Cooney to weave together a compelling story about female lives and expectations for women in ancient Egypt, and how this shaped these individuals’ access, use, and justifications for wielding power, some of which sound very familiar to discussions about women who hold power in our own time.

The evidence is necessarily patchy and the arguments sometimes speculative, as Cooney brings in much recent research and includes extensive footnotes that are well worth reading to understand the various debates that are underway in the field right now.


Women & Power: A Manifesto

By Mary Beard,

Book cover of Women & Power: A Manifesto

Why this book?

This slim volume packs a punch. Leading classicist Mary Beard tackles a critical subject that has underpinned debates about women’s role in public life across time. Why are women’s voices still marginalised in public life as different? Why is their leadership in political life still seen as needing explanation and justification? And why such hostility, something that Beard can address directly from her own experiences in the public eye. 

Beard traces the ancient origins of the complex relationship we still live with between women and power. She explores what messages are sent by the exclusionary practices of political life in these societies and by their mythological and literary narratives of what happens to powerful women. Her account identifies the continuing legacies from the ancient world about women’s right to representation and proposes ways in which we can reconceive more inclusive practices of power.


The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova

By Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova,

Book cover of The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova

Why this book?

The eighteenth-century Russian princess Ekaterina Dashkova deserves your attention. This well-travelled woman was a friend of Catherine the Great, an author and playwright, wrote one of the earliest autobiographies known in Russia, held public office as President of the Academy of Sciences, and was instrumental in establishing the Russian Academy, of which she then became Director. 

Her entertaining memoirs take us into the inner circle of the Empress’ world, offer an entrée into the literary salons of Europe, and allow us to listen in on her scientific and intellectual exchanges with Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and Diderot. Long accessible only in French, the language of Russian aristocratic society, this English edition opens up her world to new readers.


Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

By Caroline Weber,

Book cover of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Why this book?

This was one of the first studies of Marie Antoinette that aimed to take seriously her style as a critical political tool, one that worked both for the ill-fated French queen and against her. The study of bodily adornment, clothing, and fashion choices are now a key part of how we understand gender politics and the politics of the body both in history and in our own lives. 

Importantly, Weber situates Marie Antoinette’s understanding of the importance of her fashion in the wider context of the culture of display at Versailles, where close examination of bodies in ceremonial, sartorial, and sexual labour was the norm. From caca dauphin to the Diamond Necklace Affair, Weber traces the changing dynamics of Marie Antoinette’s relationship with fashion, from her time as a trendsetter to the ways in which it became part of a compelling narrative for the queen’s downfall.


Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

Why this book?

Jung Chang, best known as the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, here turns her considerable creative skill to the story of the woman who rose to the height of power in one of the world’s most important empires. Cixi’s trajectory from concubine to mother of the Tongzhi Emperor reminds us how sexual and reproductive labour are often critical to women’s access to power. 

Chang locates Cixi’s personal experiences, enjoying extreme luxury in secluded palaces yet displaying keen interest in the outside world that China was forced to confront, against a grand narrative of extraordinary changes to the empire Cixi was charged to safeguard. Chang presents a strongly sympathetic analysis of Cixi but the complex ambitions, many contradictions and perceived failures of this powerful woman ensure that she will remain the subject of continued debate.


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