I’m pretty good at this wife business, but I can’t say that I would take over my husband’s public office after his death, re-edit his film to launch a genre-defining franchise, or kill an enemy general after he was over-run. However, there are a lot of women in history who would, and did, all those things and more.
From French pirates to Chilean warrior to American filmmakers, we look at women who earn the title “super wife,” with help from Bunny Trails Podcast.
It’s not uncommon, across the world and throughout history, for a woman who has been widowed to take over her husband’s business. This may be a ranch or a store, even a mine, but what if your late husband earned his bread in the US Congress? Believe it or not, there is a protocol known as “widow’s succession” or “widow’s mandate.” “Widow’s succession used to be THE way that women got into Congress, with very few exceptions,” explains Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. It wasn’t a blue-moon occurrence. 47 women have taken over their husband’s seat, 8 in the Senate and 39 in the House. Neither was this an old-timey system that’s been long forgotten. The practice actually peaked in the mid-twentieth century. “There was a period when you could look at all the women serving in Congress, and a majority had initially gotten in that way.” Widow’s Succession has declined, but two women are serving in Congress presently because of it – Lois Capps and Doris Matsui, both Democrats from California.
Not dissimilar from a queen regent ruling until the heir came of age, the idea behind the practice was continuity, the notion that the women would complete the work their husbands started. “For the parties, these women were placeholders,” Walsh says. “The idea was to get somebody in and then regroup, and keep intraparty fights from happening.” In most cases, wives govern similarly to their husbands, though there have been notable exceptions, like California’s Mary Bono, who was significantly more conservative than her husband Sonny. The greatest ideological differences occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, when the widows tended to govern more moderately than their husbands had.
Let’s say, hypothetically, your husband hadn’t died, but had instead been incapacitated by a stroke. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say he wasn’t a Congressman, but the president of the United States. In October 1919, First Lady Edith Wilson unofficially ran the U.S. government in lieu of the 28th president. In the aftermath of WWI, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a series of medical crises, culminating in a stroke that permanently paralyzed the left side of his body, blinding his left eye. While he was bedridden for the next two months, only his wife, physicians, and a few other close associates were allowed to see him.
The First Lady effectively took over many of the presidential duties, including reviewing various important matters of state. She would not even consider making her husband resign and forsake his dedication to his office. The first move in establishing what she called her “stewardship” was to mislead the entire nation, from the Cabinet to the press, only permitting an acknowledgement that Woodrow badly needed rest. When individual Cabinet members came to confer the President, they went no further than the First Lady. If they had policy papers or pending decisions for him to review, edit or approve, she would first look over the material herself. If she deemed the matter pressing enough, she took the paperwork into her husband’s room and closed the door. As bizarre as the scenario was, officials waited in the hallway. When she came back to them after conferring with the President, Mrs. Wilson turned over their paperwork, now riddled with indecipherable margin notes that she said were the President’s transcribed verbatim responses.
This is how she described the processI myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.” Luckily, the nation faced no great crisis for the year and five months of her “regency.” Those seventeen months weren’t without confrontation. When she heard that the Secretary of State had convened a Cabinet meeting without Wilson’s permission, she considered it an act of insubordination, and he was fired.
Not all jobs are as subtle as government official. The pen is mightier than the sword, but I wouldn’t take a pen into a panzer battle. During World War II, Mariya Oktyabrskaya’s husband was killed in action. In response, Mariya sold all of their belongings to purchase a tank. She wrote Premier Joseph Stalin the following letter: “My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.”
Stalin wrote back an immediate yes, but the army was skeptical of her ability to handle a tank. However, she quickly proved in training that she could drive, shoot, and throw grenades with the best of them. On her first outing in the tank, she outmaneuvered the German soldiers, killing around thirty of them and taking out an anti-tank gun. When they shelled her tank, immobilizing Fighting Girlfriend, she got out, in the middle of a firefight, to repair it. She then got back in and proceeded to kill more Germans. Sadly, that used up her extraordinary luck. Mariya was killed by a mortar round when she got out of her tank in the middle of yet another firefight to fix Fighting Girlfriend. She became the first woman to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union Award and is buried in one of the nation’s most sacred cemeteries.
Half a world away and four centuries earlier, a Mapuche woman named Janequeo led her fallen husband’s troops into battle. The Mapuche are a tribe native to Chile, who, like the other tribes of the New World, found themselves besieged by Spanish conquistadors. The Mapuche had held the Spanish off for decades, thanks to their strong forts, one of which was captained by Janequeo’s husband, Huepotean. Huepotean was captured by the Spanish, tortured and killed. The news of his death filled Janequoe with rage, which she focused to lead her people in retaking the fort from the Spanish and gathering an army of thousands. Not merely a tactician or figurehead, Janequeo was a fierce and skilled warrior, personally defeating in single combat a Spanish commander, whose head she mounted on her spear. The Spanish doubled and re-doubled their efforts, bringing all available military might to bear on the Mapuche. Eventually, Janequeo and her army were forced to abandon their mountain fort and flee into the jungle. That is where Janequeo passes out of history and into legend, but the Mapuche continued their fight. They were able to resist conquest until the 1880s.
We don’t know how old Janequeo was when she took took command of her army, but we do know the age of one Mary Patten when she took control of her ailing husband’s clipper ship in 1856. She was 19 years old. And did I mention she was also pregnant? Though it was rarely done and often thought to be bad luck for a woman to be onboard, Mary was allowed to accompany her husband Joshua on his voyages captaining the merchant clipper Neptune’s Car. She used her time wisely, studying medicine and navigation. Joshua was already unwell when he was forced to order the first mate placed under arrest for dereliction of duty, which left him to do the work of two people. When he could no longer captain the ship, Mary filled in for him. She set the course and navigated the vessel. She also nursed Joshua, shaving his head to reduce his fever. At one point, during rough seas, she had to tie him into his bunk while she carried out the navigator’s duties.
As if that weren’t enough for her to deal with, the first mate tried to persuade Mary to release him from the brig and when that failed, he tried to persuade the rest of the crew to mutiny against her and Joshua. Mary was able to convince them to remain loyal to their captain. The journey from New York to San Francisco in the days before the Panama Canal required sailing around South America and took the Neptune’s Car 130 days, during which Mary nursed Joshua through a second bout of illness. Once they reach the port, she became an instant celebrity and received a $1,000 bonus from the shipping line for her heroics, which would be at least $25,000 now, but I can’t say for sure because the inflation calculator only goes back to 1910. Mary said she had performed “only the plain duty of a wife towards a good husband.”
Where a ship helped Mary Patten care for her husband, it took many ships to help Jeanne de Clisson avenge hers. Born in 1300 to a wealthy and influential noble family in Bretton, France, Jeanne was married at the age of 12 to a man with whom she had two children. After her first husband’s death, she married Olivier III de Clisson and they had five children together.
As their wealth was substantial, Olivier was soon enlisted by a friend to help defend Bretton against the forces of English sympathizer John de Montfort. Sadly, during the Breton War of Succession, as it would be called, Olivier cam under suspicions of being a traitor and imminent defector to the English side. In 1343, French arrested Olivier; he was tried and sentenced to death by beheading. News of her husband’s death brought great rage in Jeanne de Clisson. Her revenge against French nobility, military, and King Philip VI began with a visit to a fort her husband had once commanded. The new captain recognized her and opened the gate. Jeanna was not alone. Her troops stormed the fort. By the time the crown sent reinforcements, the fort was burning, the soldiers killed. She sold all of their lands and holdings, raising enough funds to create her soon to be infamous “Black Fleet”. With these ships, she attacked French ships under the cover of fog in the English Channel. News of the arrival of “Lioness of Brittany” quickly spread across the Europe. According to some reports, Jeanne personally decapitated all high valued prisoners with an axe, before tossing their bodies into the sea.
The Black Fleet was eventually overtaken. Jeanne escaped in a rowboat with his children. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention her children with her with? She rowed the boat for five days and nights until they reached England. Impressed with his power and having no love for France, King Edward III gave her more ships and she set out again. Her quest for revenge continued with same intensity even after King Philip VI died in 1350. Finally in 1356, after 13 years of piracy, and for no reason in evidence, Jeanne de Clisson retired from her career in vengeance and lived the rest of her days in England, tying the knot for a third time.
“Tying the knot” is one of many idioms and expressions we use when referring to marriage without ever really thinking about them. If only I had someone to do a deep dive on the etymology for me. Oh wait, I do, my friends Shauna and Dan from the Bunny Trails podcast.
Thanks Dan and Shauna. I hope my gentle listener is enjoying the guest spots on the show as much as I am. Having guests on is almost as good as seeing a new review pop up. This one is from Lewistant12, and they say “Great job! I just listened to the episode on secret cities. Fascinating! I am from Knoxville which is near Oak Ridge and it was neat to hear all the history behind it. The host have a very smooth and relaxing voice. Nice to listen to before bed to relax.”
A husband doesn’t have to be dead for his wife to jump in and help him do his job. Some of cinema’s most-iconic movies wouldn’t be what they are if not for a spouse in the editing room. Take the work of Alfred Hitchcock, for example. Alma Reville was arguably the only person to whom Hitchcock would defer in the filmmaking process and usually not easily. Biographer Patrick McGilligan said of Alma, ‘Her final word on editing was *the* final word on editing.’ Having begun her career at age 16, Alma was already an experienced editor and continuity girl, which was a real job title in the movies then, when she and Alfred met. Their working relationship began when he was made assistant director of the movie Woman to Woman and wanted to hire her to edit. The salary they offered Alma was too low and she literally walked away from the project, only to have Alfred racing down the corridor after her to make her a better offer. They would marry three years later.
For the ground-breaking movie Psycho, Hitchcock has wanted to music in the famous shower scene, that it should only have the sounds of running water and Janet Leigh’s screams. It was Alma who was able to convince him that the staccato strings of compose Bernard Herrmann were the right choice. She also caught a few frames that had gotten past everyone else and may have undermined the impact of the whole scene. Originally, when Leigh was laying supposedly dead in the tub, you could clearly see her swallow.
A bucket of bonus facts on the shower scene: The blood we see swirling down the drain was Bosco brand chocolate syrup. The scene was actually fairly tame to shoot and was made more intense during editing. Janet Leigh was so alarmed when she saw it at the initial screening that she never took a shower again if she could avoid it. If she were forced to shower, say there wasn’t a tub, she would leave the shower curtain and bathroom door open so she could watch for someone coming. That is the power of editing.
Unbelievably, Hitchcock never won an Oscar for directing, but, at age 79, he did receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. When he accepted it, he said, ‘I beg to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter, Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.’
The personal side of things wasn’t quite so rosey for Marcia Lucas and her husband George, even though her work in editing Star Wars: A New Hope made it the film that launched a media empire. In fact, Marcia, along with fellow editors Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew, was the only Lucas to bring home an Oscar in 1978. Like Alma Reville, Marcia was an accomplished film editor in her own right, working under such luminaries as Martin Scorsese. George Lucas’ original cut of the film was not the space opera fairy tale we know and love today. The opening text crawl was reeeeally long, the pacing was slogging and slow, the plot was unclear, the first act was bloated with unnecessary backstory, there were jokes where jokes didn’t fit, and the focus moved between characters in a way that made no sense. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good. Marcia and company rearranged the scenes to create tension where it had been left out, trim redundant exposition, and give the audience the right amount of information – not too much, not too little. George and Marcia Lucas divorced in 1983 and it seems he worked to repress her contributions, even putting scenes back in that she had taken out, like the scene with Han and Jabba as Mos Isley, which is two reasons to hate that scene. You’ll definitely want to check the YouTube video in the show notes for a quick side-by-side comparison of her version and his.
Not every creative appreciates their equally-creative wife. Martha Gellhorn was a war correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War in 1939 when she fell in love with another correspondent, Ernest Hemingway. The couple moved to Cuba and married, whereupon Hemingway apparently expected Gellhorn to slip off her shoes, tie on an apron and keep house. Gellhorn continued traveling to far off lands to report on conflicts. He eventually resorted to undermining her career by snagging the sole press credential her employer had to cover the D-Day invasion. Not about to be scooped by her own husband, Gellhorn talked her way onto a hospital ship and hid in a bathroom overnight. When she emerged, the invasion was underway, the ship she was on being the first hospital ship to arrive. All hands were desperately needed. Gellhorn fetched food and bandages, water and coffee, and helped interpret where she could. When night fell, she went ashore at Omaha Beach with a handful of doctors and medics, not as a journalist but as a stretcher bearer, flinging herself into icy surf that brimmed with corpses, following just behind the minesweepers to recover the wounded. She worked tirelessly through the night, with blistered hands. She was the only member of the press to have been near the battle; Hemingway and all the rest watched through binoculars from a safe distance. Hemingway’s story received top billing and more dazzle, but the truth had already been written on the sand. There were 160,000 men on that beach and one woman. Gellhorn. They divorced less than a year later and Gellhorn continued covering wars into her 80’s.
And that’s where we run out of idea, at least for today, though I’d like to leave you with one amazing story from the other side of the marital aisle. In 1960, Faguni Devi of India fell and was mortally injured on a treacherous path. The nearest medical facility was over 40 mi/75km away, owing to the mountainous terrain of the region. For the next 22 years, her husband Dashrath Manjhi, armed only with hand tools, dug down through the 300 ft/90m high mountain. The new road he created meant the trek to the hospital is now only 3mi/5km and it is substantially safer than the mountain paths that existed before. The Taj Mahal is beautiful and everything, but the “Mountain Man road” is a real testament of love. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.