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Women

The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Fascinating Women: Infanta Eulalia of Spain

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Infanta Eulalia
Infanta Eulalia of Spain (1864 – 1958)

The Infanta (a title given to daughters of the Spanish monarch) incited controversy from a very young age, and consistently caused a furor until the day of her death. The youngest daughter of Queen Isabella II of Spain, Eulalia spent much of her childhood exiled with her family in France. When her brother was restored to the throne as King Alfonso XII, the young infanta said good-bye to her convent school and resumed her rank as Spanish royalty. However, according to one volume of Eulalia’s memoirs, this abrupt change in position was the root of her cynicism towards social status, and she grew determined to undermine the snobbery and strictures of exalted rank. She dutifully married a cousin, Infante Antonio de Orleans y Borbón, at 22, but after bearing two sons, Eulalia set up her own household in Paris and Madrid, and often visited England.

The year 1893 was the first inkling that the Infanta Eulalia of Spain was her own woman and cared naught for what others might think. She made plans to visit the United States for the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Windy City’s high society brimmed with pride and delight, crowing at this coup over New York’s “400”. American newspapers were all agog over Eulalia, and city officials in New York and Chicago drew up a list of official itineraries for the Infanta, and society hostesses rubbed their hands with glee over the lavish dinners and entertainments planned for this alleged direct descendant of Christopher Columbus. Eulalia shocked everyone by smoking, she attended a Roman Catholic church in a poor parish rather than have mass in a luxurious cathedral, and even snubbed a social event to eat sausages at the fair like a regular attendee. She later courted more controversy when she tried to divorce her husband, and when she became the official go-between for wealthy, social-climbing Americans and European noble families (the grateful Americans of course showered Eulalia with automobiles or the loaning of yachts).

Eulalia’s most scandalous move yet was becoming an author. She first published The Thread of Life in 1912, where she expressed her thoughts “about education, the independence of women, the equality of classes, socialism, religion, marriage, prejudices, and traditions.” This book raised the ire of her nephew, King Alfonso XIII, who demanded to read the book before its publication–Eulalia ignored this. She added fire to the flame in 1915, when she wrote an article about the German Emperor Wilhelm II for the Strand Magazine, and published Court Life from Within, a deeper look at her life. She published two more books, the last being her official memoirs in 1935. The Infanta lived until she was 94, and though she was born to the purple, and occasionally demonstrated her royal upbringing, Eulalia held quite progressive views for her sex and rank, and during the Spanish Civil War, she wrote “We who have seen so many of our traditions crumble in the dust find our one solace in the knowledge that a new world is about to evolve.”

Read her obituary
The Thread of Life (1912)
Court Life from Within (1915)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon on Gertrude Bell

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Today we have a special guest, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, author of Scandalous Women. She is a professional actress and amateur history geek. Her blog, also named Scandalous Women, was named one of the 100 Best Blogs for History Junkies. A native New Yorker, she still calls Manhattan home.

gertrude bell

Gertrude Bell

(1868 – 1926)

She was called the “female Lawrence of Arabia,’ but that title scarcely begins to describe the life of Gertrude Bell or her accomplishments. At one time, Gertrude was the most powerful woman in the British Empire. Along with T.E. Lawrence, she not only had a role in the Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I but also helped to create the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan and the creation of the modern state of Iraq. Today she is best remembered as one of the foremost chroniclers of British imperialism in the Middle East.

Gertrude was born into a world of privilege. Her grandfather Isaac Lowthian Bell was an industrialist, making his money from the manufacture of steel. Although the family was wealthy, they lived modestly. From childhood Gertrude was fearless, constantly leading her younger brother Maurice into scrapes, climbing trees and walking along the walls near the beach. Gertrude excelled at almost all sports, she could swim, fence, row, play tennis and hockey. At the age of seventeen, having convinced her parents of the wisdom of further education, she enrolled at Lady Margaret Hall, one of only two women’s colleges at Oxford.

Gertrude thrived at Oxford although she chafed at the restrictions that required the women to be chaperoned when they left campus. She was supremely self-confident from the start and wasn’t afraid to debate her professors. With her boundless energy, Gertrude graduated with a first class degree in Modern History in two years, the first woman to do so. Her achievement landed her in The Times of London. It would not be the last time that Gertrude’s accomplishments made her newsworthy.

An attractive woman with abundant red hair she wore casually piled on top of her head, and direct green eyes, Gertrude was extremely popular with a vivacious personality. She was brilliant, opinionated, and good at small talk. However, she had an unfortunate tendency to compare most of the young men that she met to her father and grandfather and found them lacking. She could also be a little confrontational which could be off-putting to some men. When Gertrude was twenty-four, she fell in love with Persia and the Middle-East a love that would last longer than any love affair. She published her first two books, one a travelogue Persian Pictures, the other a translation of the poetry of the Sufi poet Hafiz. By her mid-thirties, Gertrude was fluent in Arabic, French, German, and Persian and had a working knowledge of Turkish and Italian.

In 1900, Gertrude made her first visit to Jerusalem to stay with friends. Before long, she was traveling alone with a guide, a cook and two muleteers. Gertrude was not afraid to venture into areas that few women, let alone men, had penetrated including the Druze, a closed Muslim sect, where she befriended their leader Yahya Bey. For the next fourteen years until World War I broke out, Gertrude criss-crossed the desert, covering most of present day Syria, Turkey, and Mesopotamia, covering more than ten thousand miles on the map, traveling either by horseback or camel. She published her findings in several books including Syria: The Desert and the Sown. Her books opened up the Arab deserts to the Western World. In 1913, she became only the second foreign woman to visit the city of Hayyil. The trip was dangerous, and she was detained in the city for eleven days.

Gertrude met the love of her life, Major Charles ‘Dick’ Montagu Doughty-Wylie in 1906, when they were both thirty-eight. Doughty-Wylie was a distinguished soldier with a chest full of medals, he was everything that she was looking for in a man, but thought she would never find. The only problem was that he was married. They corresponded over the years but it wasn’t until the summer of 1912 that the friendship turned into something more. Despite her passionate love for Dick, Gertrude couldn’t bring herself to become his mistress, and he wasn’t prepared to leave his wife. They had a few brief days together after the war started before they parted. Once again, Gertrude was to be disappointed in love. In April of 1915, Doughty-Wylie was killed at Gallipoli.

Gertrude’s life changed when the Admiralty Intelligence Service in Cairo needed help dealing with the Arabs. Her ability to speak the language, her knowledge of the desert tribes, made her unique. She became the first woman officer in the history of British Intelligence, although the title of Major was only a courtesy title. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Gertrude was asked to conduct an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia and the options for future leadership of Iraq. Gertrude worked tirelessly to promote the idea of creating the nation that we now know as Iraq to be headed by Faisal, the son of the Hassan bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, one of the instigators in the Arab revolt against the Turks.

Until her death, Gertrude served on the Iraq British High Commission Advisory Group. She became a confidante of Faisal, helping him to achieve his election as King, by introducing him to the tribes in the region. Gertrude earned another nickname “The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq.” Gertrude soon found that working with the new King was not always easy. He could be secretive, manipulative, and too easily influenced. “You may rely on one thing, I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.”

On July 12, 1926, two days before her fifty-eighth birthday, she was found dead by her maid, a bottle of sleeping pills on her night-table. It is unclear if it was a suicide attempt or an accidental overdose. There is speculation that on her last trip to England, she may have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, perhaps lung cancer. It would be within Gertrude’s character to end her life rather to spare her parents any suffering. She is buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad in the country that she loved and gave so much of her life for.

Fascinating Women: Alice Guy-Blaché

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Alice Guy-Blaché
Alice Guy-Blaché

Though we can easily recall the cinema’s pioneering actresses, history neglects the women who managed a successful career behind the camera. Alice Guy-Blaché is one of those unsung pioneers. Born in 1873 to a bookstore mogul and his wife, Alice’s upbringing was typical of an upper-middle-class Frenchwoman. Her life changed drastically after the deaths of her father and brother, and she, like many financially insecure women of the late 19th century, was no doubt forced to earn her living. In 1894 she accepted a position as secretary with Léon Gaumont at a still-photography company. This business soon went under, but Gaumont, bought the inventory and established one of France’s first motion-picture companies. Alice followed Gaumont to his newly-formed L. Gaumont et Cie and rather than remain a mere secretary, she became his head of production, directing, producing, writing and/or overseeing the company’s films and reelers between the years 1896 and 1906.

In 1907, Alice married Herbert Blaché, a British film director, producer, and screenwriter who shared her love for the cinema. Blaché was appointed Gaumont’s operations in the United States, and after a few years working under Gaumont, the Blachés decided to strike out on their own, partnering with George A. Magie in 1910 to The Solax Company. The studio, considered the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America, was located in Flushing, Queens, and with her husband taking on duties as production manager and cinematographer, Alice was free to work as Solax’s artistic director, and she directed nearly 100 films between 1910 and 1920.
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