Mon. March 8: International Women’s Day

image courtesy of Alberto H. Fabragas via pixabay.com

Instead of the usual intent of the week, I’m going to tell you about some of the extraordinary women about whom I’ve written for the 365 Women A Year playwrighting project over the last few years.

Imagine if society didn’t just pretend to value women on one day of the year? Imagine if they actually took action that proves they value women, including equal pay for equal work and non-toxic work environments.

Imagine if a woman’s value wasn’t tied to whether or not she CHOSE to have children, and both choices were given support?

Imagine if all the “administrative assistants” (who are mostly women) were given the recognition for the jobs they actually do and given the titles and pay of the do-nothing, useless executives for whom they work?

For many years, working my way up to Broadway, I worked as a temp in offices all around the country. Well over 200 companies over the decades. In all that time, I only met THREE ‘executives’ who actually did any work and weren’t a total waste of space, money, and time. Two of those individuals worked for the same company (and I worked for the pair of them).

Imagine what we could accomplish if the truly talented and those who did the work were given the money and support to do said work, instead of propping up those who don’t?

Now, to celebrate some of the extraordinary women about whom I’ve written:

Kate Warne. She was the first female Pinkerton. She walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office and told him she wanted to be a detective, and that women could get information that men couldn’t. She proved it, and became one of his top and most trusted operatives. She and her fellow Pinkertons often did large, theatrical, undercover operations. Among the cases were the Adams Express Embezzlement case (the case around which “Confidence Confidant” is based), where Kate posed as the wife of a forger to gain the confidence of the wife of an embezzler, and retrieve the money; a case where Kate posed as a medium to help kill a pair of lovers who’d poisoned the spouse of one of the pair, and was planning the murder of the other (I’m writing about that case this year in “A Rare Medium”). Kate was so popular as a medium that her clients were disconsolate when she solved the case and closed up shop. She helped smuggle Lincoln into Washington for his inauguration and thwart an assassination attempt. She helped bring down the Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. She trained an entire division of Pinkerton women.

Jeanne de Clisson. In the 14th century, she became the pirate known as “The Lioness of Brittany.” The King of France wrongly accused (and executed) her husband for treason (I think it was her second husband; it might have been her third). At forty, after giving birth to seven children, she sold her land before it could be seized. She bought three ships, painted black with red sails, and became a pirate, only preying on French ships. She later fell in love with an Englishman, and retired to England. Her son, Olivier, became known at “The Butcher” and built the Château de Clisson in Brittany, which still stands today.

Giulia Tofana. A 17th century herbalist, she developed and perfected Aqua Tofana, a poison used to free women from their abusive husbands by turning them into widows. She had a tight circle of apprentices, and they are thought to have poisoned at least 600 people. The formula has never been recovered. Supposedly, Mozart thought he’d been dosed with it. Stories differ as to whether the fanatical Wilrich von Daun actually killed her while she was in sanctuary, or whether she escaped and retired to a convent.

Lavinia Fontana. She was a painter in Renaissance Bologna, one of the first to negotiate commissions like a man would. She was supported and promoted by a cadre of powerful Bolognese society women, several of whom ran their husbands’ businesses. She married a man who took her name and took care of their many children while she worked.

Canaletto’s Sisters. The Venetian painter Caneletto had three sisters: Fiorenza, who married, and whose son became a court painter in Austria and Germany, his work often confused with Canaletto’s; Francesca, and Viena, who never married. Not much is known about them, other than they were smart, lively, and devoted to their talented brother. Canaletto started his career painting stage sets, part of a family renown for theatre stage design.

Isabella Goodwin. She was the first female NYPD detective, and her work was as much about improving women’s lives as fighting crime. Like Kate Warne, she enjoyed theatrical undercover work. She was widowed young. Her husband was a cop, killed in the line of duty, and she went into police work to provide for their children. By all accounts, she was much better at it than her husband. Later in life, she married a younger man, a singer, and her final case involved medical fraud.

Susanna Centlivre. She was one of the most popular 18th century playwrights of her day. She posed as a boy to attend Cambridge; when she was discovered, she joined touring theatres as an actress, and then became a playwright. Her satires were popular, and she was part of a lively group of writers and artists. She married a “yeoman of the mouth” – one of Queen Anne’s favorite cooks, and the stability of that marriage supported her writing.

Who am I writing about this year? More Kate Warne plays, dramatizing some of her other cases. A play about Dawn Powell and Dorothy Parker, two of my favorite writers (who weren’t particularly fond of each other). Marie Correlli, born Mary McKay, a popular Victorian novelist.

Among my earliest heroines were Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe. They are two of the reasons I became a writer.

Who are the women who inspire you?

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