Why Every Modern Girl Needs a 500-Year-Old Squad

The coolest women I know all lived before the advent of pants.

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As a little girl, before my friends and I could play pretend, before we could act out fan-fic versions of some Disney princess narrative, I demanded that everyone in the group describe exactly what they imagined their characters wearing.

No one played pretend like I did.

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What color were their dresses, their underskirts? Did they have gloves, cloaks? Because if we were going to act out a scene of our own devising, I had to fully internalize that new imaginary world, right down to the brocades on our bodies. No one played pretend like I did.

Petrus Christus, 'Portrait of a Young Woman,' 1470. The woman's identity is unknown, but there's no doubt that this was a girl who could throw shade and invite attention with one look.
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The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I spent a few weeks at the University of Oxford through a study abroad program, reading early modern British history. A love of history is the natural evolution of my attention to detail during childhood games. Studying the stories of powerful people who lived so long ago that we aren't even sure exactly what they looked like seemed a noble undertaking.

Studying history has always felt like I'm running into a room looking for someone, only to discover they've stepped out mere seconds before.

But, also, these figures didn't really feel so far away to me. Reconstructing their narratives turned them into nearly touchable people who occupied a strange, gone-but-also-here state. Studying history has always felt like I'm running into a room looking for someone, only to discover they've stepped out mere seconds before.

How relevant the work of power-grabbing always is for women.

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Among the program's built-in field trips was a day at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where I excused myself from my friends and wandered alone through the galleries containing portraits of the most important figures in 15th- and 16th-century Britain. These are rooms filled with the likenesses of kings and queens, but being a teenage girl (who had once insisted that her friends describe their imaginary princess gowns), I preferred the queens.

Queen Elizabeth I in coronation robes, a 1600 copy of a lost original from 1559.
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Why was I so taken with these women in particular? Elizabeth I, for example, became queen at 25, but her path to the throne had been difficult. Dangerous men had tried to use her as a pawn. Her Protestant v. Catholic feud with her older sister boiled over when Elizabeth was implicated in a rebellion, nearly costing her her life. A romantic at 17, I saw in the queen's coronation portrait a young woman of unshakable bravery and will, a great career before her, finally getting the break she'd worked so hard for. Hers was a grit I wanted to emulate.

Anne Boleyn depicted during her short tenure as queen, a late-16th-century copy of a lost original.
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In the years since, I've come to idolize other determined women of the time. Of course, there's Elizabeth I's mother, Anne Boleyn, a woman of modern sensibilities who is proof that intellectual brilliance and sartorial prowess inform one another. But there's also Margaret Beaufort, who gave birth to the future Henry VII at 13, and then spent nearly 30 years vying for power and backing rebellions as the country shifted violently from one king to another, until her son won the crown at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

To put it frankly, much of these women's lives were, in a word, shitty.

And Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became one of the wealthiest women in medieval history in 1137, at the age of 13—she would go on to marry the king of France and then the king of England, the first of whom historian Dan Jones describes as having been "terrified" of his politically active wife.

Elizabeth I when she was about 13, in 1546.

To put it frankly, much of these women's lives were, in a word, shitty. They are timeless to me because of this fact, because though certainly they must have looked at the world and realized it would never be kind to them, and that even at their bravest there would be so much to fear, they still demanded, fought for, and won things. How unfair it seems that they occupied the times they did; how lucky for me that I have their stories to recall and recount and retell—how relevant the work of power-grabbing always is for women.

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