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Bad Girls Of History, How Wicked Were They?

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With great power comes not-so-great nicknames. At least, that was the case for some of the most notorious queens and female rulers in history:

Egypt's Cleopatra: "Serpent of the Nile."

Rome's Agrippina: "Atrocious and Ferocious."

England's Mary Tudor: "Bloody Mary."

France's Catherine de Medici: "The Black Queen."

France's Marie Antoinette: "Madame Deficit."

China's Cixi: "The Dragon Empress."

But did these women deserve their nicknames? Were they judged differently because of when they lived? Were they condemned for traits that were excused –or even praised—in powerful men?

These questions are raised in The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames, a book collection aimed at children ages 9 to 13. The collection is edited and published by Shirin Yim Bridges.

"If a man is powerful and if he has affected history, we believe that our children should learn about him. But women who are powerful and have affected history, their stories don't get told because they weren't good enough," Bridges says to Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

The series begins with Cleopatra, who sought to make Egypt a global power. She became enormously wealthy, and had an extravagant collection of jewels. Rumors circulated that she would sometimes dissolve prize pearls in vinegar, just because she could afford to. Cleopatra encouraged her followers to view her as the embodiment the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Though she was not considered a great beauty in her time, Cleopatra was so intelligent and charming, that she beguiled two of the most powerful men of her era: Rome's Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. At one point, Cleopatra eventually expanded her control to cover almost the entire eastern Mediterranean coast.

Bridges adds, "At the same time, she condoned at the very least, if not encouraged or facilitated or even maybe connived, to have two of her brothers and one of her sisters murdered – which in our day and age, we would say is a very dastardly thing."

Atrocious and Ferocious

The one dastardly dame whom Bridges wrote about for the series herself is Agrippina. The Roman empress had connections to a series of powerful men in the empire. Her brother Caligula, her husband (and uncle) Claudius, and her son Nero all ruled Rome during her lifetime. Agrippina was scorned as haughty and ruthless, and was suspected of killing political rivals, people whom she envied, and even her husband, Emperor Claudius.

"Finding her humanity was difficult. There's not that much...that had actually survived about her, and what was written was written by very hostile witnesses," says Bridges. "But there are small details that I find in this woman who was formidable – very admirable."

Bridges explains how Agrippina's son Nero had her killed. At first, he had her boat capsized at sea. But Agrippina survived and swam to shore. When Nero then sent assassins to her home, Agrippina chose to face them alone rather than encouraging her slaves to fight to save her.

"And that to me is an immense human moment. So anything else that you want to say about this woman, you cannot say that she did not have courage," says Bridges.

Winners Write History

Bridges says that many of these women were condemned because they ended up on the wrong side of history. She points to another star of the book series, Mary Tudor. Known as "Bloody Mary," she ruled England at a time of religious strife between Catholics and Protestants. Queen Mary believed Catholicism was the one true faith, and wanted it to be religion of the nation. During her reign, she had hundreds of Protestants burned at the stake.

But her sister and successor, Elizabeth, had hundreds of Catholics executed. Yet she's known in history as "Good Queen Bess." Bridges says that was because Elizabeth was a Protestant queen, and the Protestants eventually triumphed. England remains a Protestant country to this day.

Bridges cites Mary Tudor and the other women profiled in the series when she tells school children to remember that the "winners" become the authors of history. "So bring that knowledge with you when you read these books," she says, "and start to question: Is there more that we can discover here rather than just staying with the surface stereotype?"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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