When Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” she couldn’t have been more accurate. But, it seems, sometimes even the less well-behaved ones don’t receive their moment in the spotlight – something the presidential election proved all too poignantly as a dedicated public servant who happened to be female was denied entrance to an office she desperately wanted.
One woman who was notorious for her decidedly not good behavior, Zelda Fitzgerald, is the subject of a new TV series, “The Beginning of Everything,” which has premiered on Amazon. Zelda, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, has long been the subject of fascination thanks to her daringly unconventional life. But Zelda is hardly the only woman in a famous man’s life who helped a man shape his own place in history. It’s time to shine some light on a few other women who, perhaps a bit more well-behaved, deserve their own chapter in history books.
1) Corretta Scott King
Martin Luther King’s widow recently returned to public awareness when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senator Mitch McConnell after attempting to read a letter written by King about Jeff Sessions as a form of opposition to Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General. McConnell’s silencing of Warren inspired a fresh wave of political outrage as well as a new interest in King’s words.
But King’s independent and progressive spirit was apparent long before that one letter. When the two married in 1953, she asked that the word “obey” be removed from their vows, and she accompanied her husband during important events in the Civil Rights Movement right up until his death in 1968. She continued working long after his death and worked to include women and the LGBTQ community in the movement.
Just a few of King’s accomplishments include founding the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta and the Coalition of Conscience, which consisted of more than 800 human rights groups. She was the recipient of more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees as well as a CEO, author, columnist and TV personality. And, if that wasn’t enough, she also worked to establish a national holiday honoring the work of the Civil Rights Movement.
2) Edie Kerouac-Parker
Imagine if Jack Kerouac had been stuck in jail and hadn’t been able to go on the road? The Beat Generation writer’s first wife has been unfairly characterized as an uptight young woman who wanted her husband to settle down rather than live the unconventional, wild life he has romanticized throughout his writing. Kerouac-Parker has written the story of her life with Kerouac, detailing how they met at Columbia University, their young marriage and the scandalous murder that was depicted in the film “Kill Your Darlings” —– a move that, unfortunately, portrays her in an extremely different light, especially given that she and Jack were married so she could bail him out of prison. Jack wrote Edie (giving her a different name) into the books “The Town and the Country” and the “Vanity of Duluoz,” and the two separated but she said she still loved him after their marriage ended.
3) Abigail Adams
The wife of Founding Father and later President John Adams was contemptuously called, “Mrs. President,” a nickname inspired out of resentment for her influence on her husband. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Her influence was apparent in the letters the two wrote each other, especially one penned in March 1776 that read, in part, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Credited as the first First Lady to demonstrate that a wife could be more than domestic hostess, Adams contributed greatly to the fight for equality for women that continues today. Laura Linney played in the acclaimed HBO miniseries, but that was titled “John Adams.” It’s about time for one simply called, “Abigail.”
4) Virginia Clemm Poe
The famously moody poet and writer was devoted to his young wife, who married him when she was only 13 years old. She was devoted to her husband, who was her first cousin and 14 years older than her, and remained with him when they moved from home to home due to his professional and financial instability. She was only 19 when she began showing signs of tuberculosis, the illness that killed many of Poe’s loved ones. The two, who called each other “Eddy” and “Sissy,” were known for the domestic contentment despite their constant poverty and instability.
As her illness worsened, Virginia became an invalid, homebound but determined to help keep her husband happy until her death. She told her friend Elizabeth Oakes Smith, “I know I shall die soon; I know I can’t get well; but I want to be as happy as possible and make Edgar happy.” After her death, she told her husband, she would be his guardian angel. Seemingly selfless, she even encouraged Edgar to nurture relationships with other women hoping they would help him professionally as well as personally.
Devoted to his wife until her death, Poe told her, “I should have lost my courage but for you —– my darling little wife —– you are my greatest and only stimulus now to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life.”
This unsung hero of literature is rumored to have inspired and was portrayed in some of Poe’s stories. It’s time she had her own.
5) Angelica Schuyler
Technically not a wife, but rumored to have a close relationship with Alexander Hamilton, the founding father’s sister-in-law gets some literal time in the spotlight —– and a great solo —– in the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.” But the musical has taken some liberties with history, especially regarding Angelica’s relationship with Alexander. And while the role of Angelica is undoubtedly a great one, winning original cast member Renee Elise Goldsberry a Tony Award, there is much more to learn about this intriguing woman who, Goldsberry said confidently, would have been President if she had been a man.