Myths of Women's History

Just Ain't So Stories: Popular History That Just Ain't So

Woman With Burning Bra
The Image Bank / Getty Images

It's hard enough to know, as a women's history student or teacher or researcher, that so much of the historical record ignored women, and so "her story" is hard to find. But then, sometimes, you run into information that "everyone knows" but it just ain't so. I think that's just as bad!  

With each story, you'll find the best information I could dig up on each of these "Ain't So Stories." 

Bra Burning

Woman With Burning Bra
The Image Bank / Getty Images

I found a new book recently on women's history -- in general, a good overview, designed for high school or college introductory courses, judging from the level of writing. But there it was, in a chapter on the 60s feminist movement: a reference to feminist bra-burning. I wanted to scream!   

Rule of Thumb for Wife-Beating

Thumbs Down Image
Photodisc / Getty Images

"Rule of thumb" is a rude reference to an old law permitting men to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than a thumb, right? 

Lady Godiva's Ride

Lady Godiva
Lady Godiva by John Maler Collier, about 1898. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.

According to legend, Leofric, the Anglo-Saxon earl of Mercia, imposed heavy taxes on his subjects. Lady Godiva, his wife, protested the taxes by riding nude on horseback through the town of Coventry, after first proclaiming that all citizens should stay inside. 

Was Cleopatra Black?

Sculpture of Cleopatra, Third century BC.
Sculpture of Cleopatra, Third century BC. Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Writers argue back and forth: was Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and Egypt's last Pharaoh, a black African queen? We know she was an African queen -- after all, Egypt is in Africa. But was she black? 

Betsy Ross and the First American Flag

Betsy Ross Shows First Flag to George Washington and Others
Betsy Ross Shows First Flag to George Washington and Others. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Betsy Ross is known for making the first American flag. The story told is that she made the flag after a visit in June 1776 by George Washington, Robert Morris, and her husband's uncle, George Ross. She demonstrated how to cut a 5-pointed star with a single clip of the scissors, if the fabric were folded correctly. So the story goes...  

Pocahontas Saving Captain John Smith from Execution

Captain John Smith saved by Pocahontas
An image reflecting the story told by Captain John Smith of being saved from Powhatan's death sentence by Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. Adapted from an image courtesy of US Library of Congress.

A picturesque story: Captain John Smith is innocently exploring the new land, when he is taken captive by the great Indian chief Powhatan. He is positioned on the ground, with his head on a stone, and Indian warriors are poised to club Smith to death. Suddenly, Powhatan's daughter appears, throws herself on Smith, and positions her head above his. Powhatan relents, and allows Smith to go on his way.

Why Was "Sex" Added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

Signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Was sex added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act in order to defeat the bill?  Was the addition of "sex" discrimination a big joke, greeted by gales of laughter?  Read about the adding of women's rights to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- the real story. 

Jane Fonda and the POWs

Jane Fonda at press conference on returning from North Vietnam
Jane Fonda at press conference on returning from North Vietnam. Santi Visalli/Getty Images

The email -- circulating now for more than 10 years -- claims that Jane Fonda is responsible for turning in POWs for trying to pass information to her, and for the deaths of two specific servicemen. 

The Six-Fingered Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn with Henry VIII
Anne Boleyn with Henry VIII. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 Anne Boleyn, infamous queen consort of Henry VIII (and mother of Queen Elizabeth I) had six fingers on her right hand ... or did she?  Why would someone say that if it wasn't true? 

During the reign of Anne Boleyn's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, a Catholic writer, Nicholas Sander, wrote a description of the long-dead Anne Boleyn, describing her as having a projecting tooth, a large "wen" (mole or goiter) under her chin and six fingers on her right hand.

She was described during her lifetime as not particularly beautiful, with a long neck and large eyes. Some evidence is that she had a small growth on her right hand near the nail, and that may have served as the basis of the rumor of her six-fingered hand.

This is another myth of women's history which is unlikely to be true. There is a lack of evidence during her lifetime. There is also an interest in discrediting Anne, for the author of the first appearance in print of the charge. A Catholic would have had reason to try to discredit the queen consort of Henry VIII for whom Henry broke with the Roman Catholic church in order to divorce his first wifeCatherine of Aragon.

Hillary and the Black Panthers

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton. Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Right about the time people began seriously considering Hillary Clinton as a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York, an email started circulating, alleging that Hillary Clinton had led violent protests defending Black Panther members accused of murdering and torturing another Black Panther member who was a police informant. More came through in somewhat different form, with the story changed.

Pope Joan

John Goodman, Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and Soenke Wortmann at world premiere of "Pope Joan" 2009
John Goodman, Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and Soenke Wortmann at world premiere of "Pope Joan" 2009. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Sometime around the thirteenth century, a story was published about a Pope who turned out to be a woman. During the Reformation, it was circulated widely among Protestants -- one more reason to find the Papacy fallible, even ridiculous. What better evidence that the Papacy was flawed, than that it could have failed to detect that one of its Popes was a woman!

In most of the stories, the Pope is "outed" as a woman when he (she) suddenly, in front of a crowd, goes into labor and produces a child -- about as strong a proof of womanhood as any witness might want! The mob, of course, responds appropriately to such chutzpah on the part of a woman: they drag her through the city and then, for good measure, stone her to death.

The main arguments against the legend? That there are no records from the time of the supposed Popess about any such incident. And that there are no gaps in the historical record that would allow for an otherwise undocumented Pope to have held office.

There's even a theory that the name of a street in Rome, the Vicus Papissa, named for a woman of the Pape family, gave rise to the story of a procession of a female Pope through that street, interrupted by her sudden, quick and quite public labor.

I know that there are those who disagree with my conclusion about Pope Joan. Because it's true that much of women's history has been lost or suppressed through negligence, it's easy to accept a theory about a missing female Pope. But just because there is no evidence doesn't make it true. Believable evidence is simply not there, and the "evidence" presented is easily explained. Until there's different evidence that builds a stronger case, this is one women's history story that I don't accept.

Actually, in history, the main purpose of the story of the female Pope was not to testify to the possibilities for women, beyond the ordinary, as were many legends of warrior women and women leaders that were based on verifiable truths or germs of truth. The purpose of the story of the woman Pope was originally as a lesson: that such roles were improper for women and that women who took on such roles would be punished. Later, the story was used to discredit the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, by showing how fallible the church could be in making such a horrible error. Imagine, not even noticing that a woman was leading the Church! Patently ridiculous! was the conclusion expected of anyone hearing the story.

Not exactly a way to promote positive role models for women.