Why Can’t a Woman?

Here’s a familiar sociological catch-22: Women are enjoined to be “more like a man” but will be condemned for being too “mannish” if they do so.

Pick any historically prominent woman and chances are you’ll encounter some version of this charge. Take for instance, one of the women I’ve researched: Margaret Pole. Daughter to George, the Duke of Clarence, Margaret survived the upheavals attendant upon her father’s suspicious death in the Tower as well as Henry VII’s rise to power. (Her brother Edward, wasn’t so lucky: held in custody by both Richard III and Henry Tudor, he accused of plotting an escape, attainted and executed in his turn for treason in 1499.

Margaret Pole Margaret was married off to a loyal follower of the Tudors. When her husband died, she and her children fell on hard times until Henry VIII’s coronation. Her young relative showered Margaret with honours: a title, lands and wealth became hers as the new countess of Salisbury. When Margaret and her family sided with Catherine of Aragon and the traditional church in Henry’s break with Rome, the writing was on the wall.

In 1538, Henry’s ministers focused on Pole’s family and circle as traitors supporting a foreign-supported invasion of England. Some of Margaret’s sons cracked under torture: confessing their complicity in a plot that brought in other noble families as well as their brother, Cardinal Reginald Pole. Margaret resisted all accusations of treason in a grueling series of interrogations, as her weary examiners explained in a letter to Thomas Cromwell. “We have dealid with such a one as men have not dealid with to fore us, Wee may call hyr rather a strong and custaunt man than a woman.”1 It didn’t help. Thomas Cromwell trumped up charges against Margaret that led to her attainder and eventual execution.

Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? What other historical women do you know have been accused of being too much like a man?


  1. William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton and Thomas, bishop of Ely to Cromwell, 16 November, 1538, Letters and Papers XIII (2), no. 855.



Filed under history, pop culture

2 responses to “Why Can’t a Woman?

  1. Hm. I think I need to look at Orderic, but it’s possible that Mabel of Belleme gets that accusation. Although she also is accused of being a poisoner, which is often a “woman’s” crime. Have you read Magistra’s post on such things? It’s here

    • jliedl

      I hadn’t seen Magistra’s post on this, thanks so much for the reference! It really is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for historical women. They’re either ‘womanish’ and unworthy or they’re ‘manly’ and unnatural. Unless they just don’t show up in the historical record at all, as with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous phrase.