“History,” the (male) professor said to my class, “consists of wars.”
My hand shot up. He was talking, I said, of men’s history. What about that of women?
Men have been killing each other, it’s true, since the days of Cain and Abel, in a never-ceasing struggle for dominance, money, and power. Women, however, have struggled just as fiercely – for power over our own lives.
Throughout my career as a journalist, a scholar, and, now, an author, I have been intensely interested in women’s power.
In my first two novels, The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina, I considered the life of A’isha bint Abi Bakr, who married the Prophet Muhammad when she was nine years old and he was 52. She grew up to become the most famous and influential woman in the history of Islam, an outspoken political adviser, a military leader, and a warrior who led troops in the first Islamic civil war. She did so by virtue of her intelligence and courage, yes, but also by stubbornly refusing to be silenced in a culture where women had few rights.
My new books, White Heart and Four Sisters, All Queens, demonstrate that, six centuries later and a continent away, women were still striving for the opportunity to make a difference in the world.
White Heart tells the story of Blanche de Castille, France’s formidable White Queen, who, after the death of her husband, King Louis VIII, struggled in the face of slander, betrayal, and imprisonment to hold the crown for her young son against the barons of the realm who — greedy to claim it for themselves — declared her unfit to rule, being a woman.
In Four Sisters, All Queens, Marguerite, Queen of France; Eléonore, Queen of England; Sanchia, Queen of Germany, and Beatrice, Queen of Italy discover what a woman must do (and what she mustn’t) to wield power in a man’s world. Ultimately, their struggles turn them against one another, pitting sister against sister – with devastating results.
My next protagonist will be Heloise d’Argenteuil, reputed to be the most brilliant scholar of her day – 12th-century Paris – a woman! Her passionate, and illicit, love affair with Peter Abelard, the most famous philosopher in the western world, ended tragically for them both, but especially for Heloise. She, who dared to live life on her own terms against the strictures of culture and Church, lost everything that mattered to her. Yet she rose above her misfortune to build a convent from almost nothing, and to make it, as its abbess, into one of the premier institutions of the era. And, as her letters proclaim, her love – and desire – for Abelard never waned.
My heroines inspire me to stand up and be counted, to assert my strength, to be all I can be. They remind me to believe in myself and my abilities.
I hope that, in telling these remarkable women’s stories, I can inspire others to do as they did: to dream big, to aim high, and to dare to make a difference, no matter how impossible the task might seem.