Our ongoing series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about Renaissance women, Medieval women, and 18th-century people who need movies made about them.
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) and Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837-1881)
Empress Dowagers Cixi and Ci’an are probably two of the most interesting women to have ever occupied the same title at the same time. The penultimate co-rulers of the Qing Dynasty, they shared power simultaneously after the death of their husband, the Xianfeng Emperor, during a period of history where the East and West were clashing more frequently and violently. Cixi, originally a sixth ranked concubine of Xianfeng, was the natural mother of his heir, whereas Ci’an was the emperor’s principle wife and of a higher social class than Cixi, though childless.
Educated and ambitious, Cixi was the real power behind the regency period which lasted a good 47 years until her death in 1908, whereas Ci’an preferred a less visible, more traditional role as Empress Dowager. Cixi outlived Ci’an by about 20 years, but both women had formed a bond that enabled the final decades of the Qing Dynasty to flourish under their control, even in the wake of increasingly bloody “interventions” by the British. Cixi has been portrayed as a tyrannical despot by both Chinese and Western historians, but as we here at Frock Flicks know, history is written by the victors, and I think we deserve a fresh look at these two women and how they shaped international policy at the end of the 19th century.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
Aside from getting the Ken Burns treatment almost 20 years ago (who knew? I sure as hell missed the memo while everyone was still raving about Civil War from 10 years before), there’s never been a concentrated effort to bring the story of the mother of women’s suffrage in America to either big or small screens.
Most people are far more familiar with her cohort, Susan B. Anthony, but Stanton’s groundbreaking document Declaration of Sentiments was the cornerstone of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, considered to be the first women’s rights convention, that set in motion a national movement for civil rights — not just for women, but for the abolition of slavery as well (Frederick Douglass was one of Stanton’s most vocal supporters). Or maybe I’m just biased because I actually dressed up as Stanton and read from a section of Declaration for extra credit in my “Women in American History” class in college. (I got an A, obvs. Pro tip to students: Anthropology and history professors love costumes.)
Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)
While we are on the subject of early American feminists, I’d like to throw in Victoria Woodhull. In 1872, the 36-year-old Woodhull launched a campaign as the first female candidate for President of the United States (144 years later, we still haven’t managed to put a woman in the Oval Office, but that’s another rant for another blog).
Woodhull is still somewhat of a controversial figure, which is probably why you may not have heard of her, but her list of accomplishments is pretty incredible. She made her fortune as a magnetic healer and clairvoyant, edited and published a newspaper with her sister, was the first woman to testify before Congress, was the first female stockbroker on Wall Street, and was an outspoken advocate for free love after two of her three marriages failed. In 1872. her presidential campaign was shut down after she was arrested on obscenity charges owing to her publication about an adulterous affair between the famous minister and abolitionist (and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) Henry Ward Beecher and the wife of one of his associates.
I suspect the reason why we have hardly heard much in the history books about Woodhull is because she was the polar opposite of conventional womanhood, even by today’s standards. She often clashed with other feminists of her time who regarded her as sensationalist, and she created so much scandal that Susan B. Anthony famously wrote to a British suffragist, “Let her severely alone. Both sisters are regarded as lewd and indecent. I would advise against all contact.” However, it’s exactly these types of women who make for really good storytelling on film.
Mary Fields (1834-1914)
Mary Fields was, by all accounts, an exceptional woman. She was a 6-foot tall, cigar-smoking, gun-toting, whiskey-drinking force of nature. I’ll let Gary Cooper’s memorial of Stagecoach Mary in an article for Ebony in 1959 speak for itself: “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”
Despite the impression you might get from her photo, Fields was actually a United States government official by the 1880s, when she was hired as the first African-American female postal worker for the U.S. Postal Service. Her qualifications? She was the fastest applicant who could harness and attach a team of six horses to a stagecoach. I figure if we can have a film about a post-apocalyptic postal carrier staring a white guy (ehem, Kevin Costner), we should also be able to have a film about a post-Civil War, former slave-turned-government worker female postal carrier, right?
Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)
How do I do sum up Mary Edmonia Lewis’ really, really interesting life without writing a freaking novel? The daughter of an African-Haitian father and a Native American mother, Lewis was raised in Greenbush, New York. At 15, she was accepted to Oberlin College at a time when few black women were even taught to read and write, let alone higher education. By all accounts, she performed well in school (having been declared “wild” and kicked out of her previous school), but by the time her final year rolled around she was implicated in a scandal involving drugging two of her female friends with a suspected aphrodisiac-spiked wine. The scandal prevented her from finishing her degree, but that did not prevent Lewis from gaining recognition in the arts. She left Ohio, first for Boston where she was apprenticed to fellow neoclassical sculptor Edward A. Brackett and accumulated a clientele comprised of leading abolitionists and Civil War heroes, such as John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army. Her work gained traction in abolitionist circles and Lewis came to some prominence within the Boston social scene as a result.
In 1866, she left Boston for Rome, where celebrated sculptor Hiram Powers allowed her workspace in his studio. Owing to Italy’s considerably more progressive approach to race relations, Lewis was able to spend most of her adult life treated as an equal among artists, with wealthy and influential patrons paying staggering sums of money for her works (for instance, a pair of commissions in 1873 sold for $50,000 each, which is nothing to sneeze at by today’s standards, but in 1873 money was serious cash). Perhaps her most famous work is the gorgeous marble sculpture The Death of Cleopatra, created for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
More notable clients followed when she returned to the U.S., including former President Ulysses S. Grant, who sat for Lewis in 1877 and was reportedly pleased with the resulting portrait bust. As neoclassicism declined in the last two decades of the 19th century, Lewis’ popularity waned until she, like so many other celebrated artists of their day, were all but forgotten. She moved to London in 1901 and disappeared into obscurity, finally passing away in 1907 at the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary, having never married nor had any children that were known of.
And if that doesn’t sound like one hell of a story, then maybe you should try switching to Michael Bay films.
Are there other 19th-century women you think Hollywood has overlooked?
Will there be an early 20th century women list too? If not, then I’m going to be cheeky and nominate Zaida Ben-Yusuf on the basis that she was REALLY late 19th century. Although I think her film would be more along the lines of “inspired by” than an actual accurate telling of her story – the bones of her story, what little we know of it, are fascinating, even if there isn’t as much exciting incident.
Before Susan B. fell out with Victoria Woodhull, she had a super girl crush on her! I’ve read some of the letters.
Clara Schumann. She was a brilliant pianist and muse for Brahms and her husband.
Fanny Mendolsohn, sister of Felix, musician in own right.
Amy Beech, Bostonian composer.
Fanny Mendelssohn would be a great choice. Her brother kept trying to keep her down, and she didn’t want to take her compositions public without his blessing, but she eventually got so tired of waiting that she premiered a major work without his approval.
There is a Clara Schumann movie, Song of Love, with Katherine Hepburn as Clara. I do think her story is due for an update.
Mary Cassatt. Because her paintings are beautiful and because movies about art and artists can be amazingly lovely.
Thanks for nominating Victoria Woodhull — she was the first person I thought of. How about Harriet Tubman? I don’t know if any films have been made about her. She helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, among other things and will be the first woman to be featured on US currency ($20 bill).
Probably yhe main reason you know of her is the film starring CicelyTyson in the mid-1970s which broughther into the standard elementary lists of famous women, famous black people.
Actually, since I live in Maryland, Harriet Tubman is part of our history. I never saw the Cicely Tyson movie, but maybe I can track it down. Thanks for mentioning it.
I’d love a film about Colette’s life. But I’d watch the shit out of any film about any of these amazing women!
Try “Becoming Colette”
Ada Lovelace! Only child of Lord Byron, often acknowledged as the first computer programmer, and her most famous portrait has some amazingly funky 1830s hair going on. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace She worked with some of the more famous scientists and mathematicians of her day, and also had an affair with her tutor.
Gertrude Lothian bell. first woman to get a first class degree in history from oxford. one of the forgotten founders of modern archaeology, she was with wooley at the first excavation of ur and made many significant discoveries of her own, significant diplomat in the middle east, friend of t e Lawrence, it was to her that Churchill turned for advice for the foundation of modern Iraq- she pretty much shaped the modern geography of the middle east.
also a fairly major hypocrite, because despite her own power influence and success she was viamently against women’s suffrage.
and she grew up about 200 yards from my house
Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman. (unfortunately)
Coming out soon.
I have but two words to contribute:
Seriously there NEEDS to be a miniseries made about her.
Off-topic, but brought to mind by the two empresses mentioned in your post. Have you reviewed “Empresses in the Palace”? It’s on Netflix. It’s a really rich and complex story filled with fabulous, fabulous costumes.
Empresses in the Palace is lovely! I would suggest watching the full version, however, which is available on Viki: https://www.viki.com/tv/7160c-the-legend-of-zhen-huancompleted. The Netflix version was condensed (in some areas, rather awkwardly) and the translations on the Viki episodes are thought to be superior.
How about Mary Elisabeth Walker? She was the first female army surgeon on the Union Side during the Civil War, imprisioned as a spy by the confederates after helping with a battlefield amputation, dress reformer, she received the Medal of Honor and a pention from Congress. Not many people even know she exists. When she married she refused to use the word obey in her vows, wore pants during the ceremony under a short skirt, and later divorced her husband for adultery.
I mentioned her in an earlier post. Folks need to know more about her; she is one of my heroes.
I nominate Julia Margaret Cameron or Ellen Terry.
I’d add Christina Rossetti as well.
Annie Londonderry! In 1894-95 she rode a bicycle around the world, gathering wilder & wilder tales about her travels. How could that not be a fun movie? Or Isabella Bird, who rode all over the Rocky Mountains in 1873, either alone or in the company of a one-eyed desperado, then went on to travel all over Asia. There are many more such intrepid ladies whose stories would make wonderful movies.
Ada Lovelace, credited as being the designer of the first computer, daughter of Lord Byron, and quite a strong and controversial woman in her time.There was to have been a film made about her but it has fallen of the radar.
Another woman of interest is Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, mistress of Rossetti. Also, though her life was perhaps less eventful, “George Eliot”. And while there have been films and TV series about the Bronte’s I feel as though we are overdue for another, fresher, look at their lives.
I would also like to make the point that it isn’t just the famous and rich women who are worthy of film treatment. I would like to see more films about the more humble women and their adventures, achievements and failures from all eras.
Madame C J Walker (Sarah Breedlove) first American women millionaire. This African American woman made a fortune by developing and marketing hair products developed especially for the African American woman. She was one of the wealthiest people in America. She used her money for philanthropic purposes. Among them were the arts and Villa Lewaro.
OMG – just learned about Sarah Guppy. Now SHE sounds like a really, really worthy contender and her story should be way better known!!
I can add two: Esme Berringer and Jaguarina. Berringer was an actress and fencer who was associated with the group that explored historical swordsmanship headed by Capt Alfred Hutton. Arthur Conan Doyle was also a member of this group. Jaguarina was a bit later, but was trained by a man who made her an extremely formidable competitor, beating most of the best men around.
I’d offer up Mary Hunter Austin, because not every woman in 19th century California was a scared housewife or golden-hearted hooker.
I offer up another woman of the arts. Dame Nellie Melba. She sang in the opera palaces of the 1880-1890s before doing a guest stint on Downton Abbey. She was an Australian and was the first Aussie opera singer to become world famous. She sung Norma, Violetta in LA Traviata and Juliet and was known for her interpretation of Italian and French Opera. She had a long-term relationship with Prince Philippe Duc d’Orleans.
And had a dessert created in her honour: Peach Melba.
As it happens, this week’s edition of Bored Panda has a list of 30+ Kick-ass Women, many of whom should be listed here.
Sarah Bernhardt, French actress. Her biography by Cornelia Otis Skinner reads like a novel.
And why not Skinner herself?
Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke. She was Grant’s chief of nursing in the Western theatre of the Civil War; and was responsible for the improvement of the sanitation of field hospitals. When an officer complained about her, Sherman said plainly, “She outranks me.”, and she was often referred to as “Brigadier Commanding Hospitals”. She served as a field nurse at nearly twenty battles, including Shiloh and Vicksburg.
Before the war, she was an herbalist, and alternative healer. After the war, she became a lawyer specialising in veterans advocacy.
The Harriet Tubman movie is actually a two-part miniseries called “A Woman Called Moses” that aired in 1978. It covered her years as a slave and her participation with the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. It’s actually very good . . . aside from Orson Wells’ narration.
Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke. She was Grant’s chief of nursing in the Western theatre of the Civil War; and was responsible for the improvement of the sanitation of field hospitals. When an officer complained about her, Sherman said plainly, “She outranks me.”, and she was often referred to as “Brigadier Commanding Hospitals”.
She has always struck me as an interesting figure. I first came across her in a romance novel by Elizabeth Kary called “Let No Man Divide”.
And let’s not forget Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who at least merited a song by tom Lerhrer. Or Varina Davis, who practically ran the Confederacy with Judah Benjamin in between tending the sick and wounded in Chimborazo Hospital when old Jeff was laid up. Her maiden name was Howell, and she was from New Jersey. I think the township may have been named after her family.
Of course I would add Ada Lovelace and Harriet Tubman!
But I would also LOVE to watch a movie about Lady Jane Digby (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Digby) What a life!!