In the history of the modern world, challenging male authority has always been something of a hit-or-miss venture for women. Those who tried rarely succeeded; those who succeeded were labeled traitors to societal expectation. With few exceptions, the development of the western world was guided largely by men, who sought and maintained power through demonstrations of their might and male authority.
For those few women who did manage to find themselves within the reach of power, casting aside "womanly virtue" to don the mantle of a king generally came at a price. In the recent BBC documentary series She-Wolves: England's Early Queens, professor and historian Dr. Helen Castor examines the political trajectories of seven such female aspirants, cataloguing their varied successes and failures in the face of overwhelming male opposition. For many of these women, the attempt to secure power in their own rights resulted in their being labeled "she-wolves"--monsters in women's clothing, unnatural figures intent upon bringing about evil and ruin through their ambition to rule like men.
The term "she-wolves" is a creation of playwright William Shakespeare, who coins the term in his 1591 play Henry VI, Part III in reference to one of the subjects of Castor's documentary, Margaret of Anjou. Shakespeare calls Margaret--queen of England and wife of Henry VI--the "[s]he-wolf of France," going further still in labeling her a "tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide," more flinty and unyielding male than mere "soft, mild" woman. It's not exactly meant as a compliment. But in a post-feminist reexamination of England's earliest queens, Castor twists Shakespeare's intent and uses his rather unflattering terminology to reveal the motivations behind each of these women's actions, determining that the castigation of these female rulers was driven fundamentally by their male counterparts' overwhelming fear, jealousy, and desire to gain and exert their own power. These are not "she-wolves," Castor argues; far from monsters, they are merely women who largely sought only to receive and hold onto the power and position that they rightfully should have been given anyway, by virtue of their noble births and/or marital vows.
The series consists of three episodes, each focusing on two or three queens connected by bloodline or time period. The first details the lives of Matilda (daughter of Henry I) and her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine; the second, Isabella (wife of Edward II) and Margaret (wife of Henry VI); and the third examines the lives of perhaps the three most famous early queens: Lady Jane Grey (she of the nine-day reign) and the daughters of Henry VIII, "Bloody" Mary and Elizabeth I. Castor presents these women's lives and speculates on their respective motivations, capably making the case that these queens have perhaps been unjustly maligned and vilified over the centuries simply because they attempted to rule like male kings instead of mere "queens." It's a fascination reappraisal of historical record that ultimately sheds new light on these generally misunderstood monarchs.
The DVD release of She-Wolves from Athena Learning includes a single disc containing all episodes. The scant bonus features include a biography of Castor as well as a small booklet with more details about the queens featured in the series as well as brief profiles on other powerful female rulers throughout history.
Each episode of She-Wolves is crafted essentially as a lengthy essay on these women's lives. Yet Castor's engaging delivery and obvious enthusiasm go a long way toward making a potentially boring subject palatable for general viewers. Whether you're a history buff or just interested in the scandals, trials, and tribulations of monarchies past, this series is an entertaining glimpse back at the women who challenged the status quo long before the feminist movements of the twentieth century.