Throughout history, few subjects have inspired more spirited discussion than the subject of women in power.
We've never had a woman president, for example, and only a very few women have even attempted to run for the office.
Our mother country of England has had only five ruling queens in her nearly thousand years of history, since the Norman Conquest, and only one female prime minister. Spain, on the other hand was created by a woman, together with her husband, by their joining of two smaller kingdoms.
France clung for most of her history to the Salic Law, which they claimed kept a woman from ever ruling. Some claimed that extended to an inability to claim authority for their sons, if their fathers had no other heir.
No less an authority than Queen Victoria once wrote, ''The Queen is most anxious to enlist every one who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of 'women's rights,' with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor, feeble sex is bent.'' Clearly she was not a woman with a strong sense of irony.
There has begun a trend in recent years, to study the lives of women throughout history who have exercised power or who have claimed the right to exercise power. When a woman's history in power has been impossible to ignore, she has almost universally been attacked for her sexual history. Henry VIII, who had publicly-recognized illegitimate children, for example, removed the heads of two of his wives on a charge of doing what he had done without the slightest second thought. One of those two was probably innocent.
Not surprisingly, many of these studies have been written by women, and again, not surprisingly, many of them bend over backwards to find wisdom and rare talents in women who have traditionally been left out of the common rush of history's march.
This week, let's look at two of these studies of women in power. A word of caution, though, from Queen Victoria, once again: ''I would venture to warn against too great intimacy with artists, as it is very seductive and a little dangerous.''
''Legend has it that on dark nights, an angry ghost can be glimpsed at the ruins of Christ Church, in Newgate Street, London. The ghost, clutching the heart of her murdered husband, is reputed to be Isabella, Edward II's Queen.''
So begins a publicity release for the historical biography ''Queen Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England,'' by Alison Weir. The release goes on to suggest that if Isabella had not engaged in a four-year adulterous affair with a man named Roger Mortimer, she would be remembered as a liberating savior of her adopted country.
The history of Isabella is arresting. Born in 1296, the daughter of the King of France, she was betrothed at the age of five to the heir to the English throne. He was 19, and eventually became King Edward II of England. Betrothal, in the middle ages, was taken very seriously, and once a couple was betrothed, they were considered, for legal purposes, to be married. That is, except when it was convenient for someone in power, not to think so.
One problem of histories of this period is that so little is really certain. There were no birth certificates, no newspaper clippings, no credit card receipts. Historians clutch at each other's throats over whether the diary of a duke is more believable than a chronicle, written by an anonymous monk and hidden away for centuries.
Then, as now, people in power ordered that things known to be false should be treated as true, and vice versa. Those who benefited from the change became utterly convinced in the new truth. Those who benefited from the original ''truth'' raised armies to resist the change.
The actual wedding took place when the bride was 12. Edward II was tall, blond, and athletic. The couple eventually had two surviving sons, including King Edward III, and two daughters. Isabella also had at least one miscarriage - possibly more than one. The children, in their portraits look very much like their father, and even people who hated either Edward, Isabella, their children, or all of them, never claimed that they weren't legitimate, so they probably were.
The couple had two major problems: First, the king followed his father, who was wildly popular as a conqueror and a powerful ruler, and he was unable to match his father's record, making him hated and viewed as a failure. Second, Edward was more devoted to a series of male favorites than he was to his wife, giving them costly and important gifts which legally belonged to her.
Again, in the subsequent centuries, historians have disputed whether Edward was really as bad a king as he sounded, or whether his father simply made so many enemies that when he died, they were ready to gang up on his son. Either way, Isabella eventually took as her lover a successful warrior named Roger Mortimer.
They overthrew her husband, took him prisoner, and for centuries, it was believed that they had him murdered. Some even have described unbelievably horrible ways in which he might have been murdered. The adulterous couple governed England as regents for her son.
Eventually, Isabella's son reached the age of adulthood. He took over the government, had Uncle Roger executed for murdering his father, and sent his mother into retirement.
Overthrowing and murdering a king won Isabella the nickname ''She-Wolf of France,'' although in fact, that moniker was first used by Shakespeare and referred to Margaret of Anjou, the wife and widow of Henry VI, and later got transferred to Isabella, although she lived hundreds of years earlier.
Now, it is generally accepted that Edward II was not murdered, but that he escaped from prison and lived another 20 years, wandering around Italy and Germany. There is quite a bit of evidence, actually.
If you're a fan of the film ''Braveheart,'' by the way, in which Isabella is seduced by Scottish leader William Wallace, who becomes the true father of England's future king, realize it's just one more of the lies. Isabella was a child living in France when Wallace was executed, and her son Edward III wasn't born for more than a decade. That would be a miraculous pregnancy.
Author Weir takes you through all the facts, patiently producing evidence such as bills paid by city councils for wine served to welcome the Queen, to prove that she was in that city on a given day, and not where some enemy's writing placed her.
Among the book's well-documented claims are that Isabella did not go mad, after her overthrow, nor was she held prisoner by her son. Accounts of her presence at parties and tournaments, in that period do seem to support the claim.
Through her, her son would claim the French throne, in addition to his English one, and there followed more than a century of wars in which he and his descendants alternately won it and lost it back.
It's easy to read, and reasonable to believe. Occasionally it feels as though Weir wants to believe something true, more than the proof supports, which is true in most biographers' works.
Clearly, a woman headed England's government for quite a while, in the 14th Century, yet there are still people who are convinced that it isn't possible.
''Queen Isabella'' was published in 2005, and published by Ballantine Books. It has 388 pages, in paper bound edition, and sells for $16.95. Find it at libraries in Jamestown, Chautauqua, Westfield, Franklinville, or Olean, or get it at your nearest library from inter-library loan. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-345-45320-4.
CATHERINE DE MEDICI
Catherine de Medici governed France in the 16th Century. She has been portrayed in novels, operas, films and other media as ''the Black Queen,'' and has been accused of murdering her husband, three of her sons, and between 5,000 and 30,000 Protestants, in her efforts to keep France under her control and part of the Catholic Church, despite the forces of the Reformation, swirling around her.
Biographer Leonie Frieda sifts through the evidence, and offers us an image of a Catherine whose hands are far from clean, but whose actions make considerably more sense in the perspective of when and where she lived.
Just as Isabella, above, wasn't English, yet governed England, Catherine de Medici wasn't French, but governed France - that country which prided itself that it couldn't be governed by women.
She was born Caterina Maria Romula de Medici, in Florence. Today that city is located in Italy. In 1519, it was an independent city-state, governed by her family. She was closely related to Popes Leo X and Clement VII, although the official versions of relationships in the Medici family and the commonly-accepted understandings, often disagree.
Her childhood was miserable. Her mother died, shortly after her birth. Her father died before she was six. She was raised in a series of convents, alternately spoiled and abused. As civil wars wracked her country, her life was in serious danger, more that once.
Because she had a disputed claim to be the ruler of the Italian city of Urbino, she was desirable wife material, although she was plumpish and was described as having a weak chin and bulbous eyes.
The King of France at the time was Francis I. He had dreams of scooping up as many pieces of Italy as he could. Attracted by her claims to Urbino and by a mind-boggling dowry, promised by Pope Clement VII, Francis arranged for her to marry his younger son, Henry, Duke of Burgundy. Both bride and groom were 14 years old.
The French royal court found her unattractive and dull, and were horrified that she had no royal title, except her husband's. They referred to her as ''the grocer's daughter.'' They didn't always wait until her back was turned to say it, either. Henry enjoyed the company of a number of mistresses, including his principal favorite, who was 19 years older than he. For 10 years after her marriage, Catherine had no children.
When the pope died and a non-relative was elected in his place, payments on her giant dowry stopped cold, and immediate plans were begun to annul her marriage, so her husband could try again.
But then her husband's older brother, suddenly dropped over dead, after playing a game of tennis. Henry was now heir to the throne. Shortly after this, Catherine gave birth to the first of what would eventually be 10 children, meaning that her marriage couldn't be annulled without making the heirs to the throne illegitimate.
These were the first of a long line of coincidences which inspired her enemies to accuse her of doing more than wishing, to bring them about. Frieda often exonerates her subject from guilt, although at times there is room for doubt.
Throughout her husband's waiting for the throne and the years of his actual rule as Henry II, Catherine remained quiet, obedient, and patient. Her husband relied more and more on what he considered her level-headed thinking and her skills at talking people into agreeing with her, while he spent more and more time with his prettier companions.
Henry died in a tournament. Wounded in the face, he lived for a few days, then died. His and Catherine's oldest son became Francis II. There was a time when Henry's early departure was viewed as possibly her doing, but most contemporary historians reject that. From that time forward, she never wore anything but black clothes, except on the occasions of her children's weddings.
The new king was a frail and sickly young man, and his decisions were largely made by his mother, and by his wife, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots. Francis died young, of an infected abscess in his ear. Rumors spread that he was poisoned, to remove his wife from his mother's way. Some literary experts have claimed that the poisoning of the king in Shakespeare's play ''Hamlet'' by having poison poured into his ear, was a deliberate taunt of the French queen.
Catherine's second son, Charles IX mounted the throne, although it was announced that his signature on a law was not legal unless she signed, as well. The new king's older sister, Elizabeth of Valois, soon married Phillip II, the Spanish king who sent the mighty armada against England. Phillip, whose country was largely controlled by the Spanish Inquisition, continually threatened and prodded his wife's family that they were too tolerant of the growing number of Protestants in France.