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I deeply believe that calling someone a "bad mother" is a
problematic label. After all, we rarely dismiss men for their legacies as
fathers. But being someone who really loves history, I'm always sadistically entertained
when I come across anecdotes of famous women berating their children or
ignoring them in order to murder virgins. Because I always think, "Well, ignoring
them for my smart phone isn't that bad. Right?"
So often in history a woman's success was tied to the fruits
of her womb. And many of history's "bad mothers" found ways to subvert that paradigm
to find freedom, power and maybe some jail time. It's problematic, liberating
and a little scary. So, for your enjoyment, here is a list of some of history's
maniacal mothers. Maybe they'll make you feel better for letting your kids
watch TV all day.
It's important to note: I don't think the legacy of a woman
as a mother undermines whatever these women achieved. I'd make list of bad
father's in history, but that would be too long, am I right?
1. Maria Theresa
Maria Theresa was the first and only Habsburg woman to rule
the Holy Roman Empire, and she's arguably the best. She led financial, educational and
government reforms that transformed the empire. She also had 16 children,
including Marie Antoinette. And she seemed to make a part time job out of
writing them critical letters, especially to her son Joseph II. She criticized
him constantly. She judged her kids for not having enough babies, for being too "weak"
and frivolous. Maria Theresa: Absolute monarch and absolutely monarchial as a
Portrait by Martin van Meytens
2. Martha Gellhorn
Gellhorn was a journalist and novelist and one of the best
war correspondents in history. When she was 40, she adopted a boy from Italy,
who she later considered a disappointment. A biography of Gellhorn written by
Caroline Moorehead describes her as distant and cruel. This depiction of
Gellhorn is disputed by her stepson, who described her as devoted. Whatever the truth, the scrum over Gellhorn's maternal legacy shows just how much women are defined
by motherhood, no matter what else they've accomplished.
The author of the beloved "Mary Poppins" was not quite the rescuing nanny in her novels. Travers
adopted a boy who she named Camillus. There was only one problem: He had a twin brother. Some biographers claim Travers didn't know about the other boy. Some say she did and rejected
him. But however it turned out, Camillus was reunited with his brother at 17
and was enraged at Travers for lying to him about his past and failing to adopt
his brother. Joseph Hone, the other brother, claims Travers was a terrible
mother who ruined his brother's life.
While some historical depictions of bad mothers are
problematic, Elizabeth Bathory is an easy one. This lady had six kids but
frequently left them in order to murder virgins and bathe in their blood.
Bathory was a renowned Hungarian countess and is perhaps the most prolific
female serial killer in history. But hey, at least she didn't kill her kids.
Unlike our next example…
5. Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness was also a mother and professional serial
killer. (See, women can have it all!) Gunness killed her first victim, her husband, in 1900 and promptly collected on the life insurance. And that was just the beginning, she
killed other ensuing husbands and two of her daughters—and she did it all for
Image via Wikipedia
6. Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian was China's only female emperor in more than 400
years. She vastly expanded China's empire and the story of her rise to power is
fascinating. Of course, as with every powerful woman, her legacy as a
mother is problematic, to say the least. As a consort of the Emperor, Wu gave birth to a baby girl, who died from apparent strangulation. Wu
blamed the Empress for the death of her child. As a result, the Empress was removed from court and Wu eliminated the competition. Some historians have suggested that Wu actually killed the
child herself to advance her political aspirations. Others believe she
capitalized on the tragedy. But however you parse it, it's probably not going
to win her the mother-of-the-year award.
Image via "An 18th Century Album of Portraits of 86 Emperors of China"
7. Catherine de Medici
Catherine de Medici was the mother of three kings of France
and a woman who wielded unprecedented political power. While there is no doubt
that it was her finagling that kept her sons on the throne, she was also
ruthless and used them as pawns in her game of power. There is also the bit about being suspected of poisoning her son's mother-in-law. When her daughter, Margaret, was discovered to be having an affair with Henry of Guise, Catherine
had her brought to her chambers and she beat her, ripping her clothes and
tearing out chunks of her hair.
Image via Karen Hearn
Medea was the mythological wife of the hero, Jason. When
Jason left Medea for the daughter of the King of Corinth, Medea kills their
children in a fit of rage.
Painting by Evelyn de Morgan
9. Bona Sforza
Bona Sforza was the Queen of Poland, and she often had it out
for the Habsburgs. It's too bad, because they had a lot in common. Queen Bona
took a disliking to her son Sigismund II's wives. Two of them died early on in
their marriages. Even if Queen Bona didn't poison her daughters-in-law, she was
very heavy-handed in her son's love affairs.
Tabloids are fond of besmirching famous moms who dress in
skimpy outfits, but how about a mom who was a serial killer and routinely
tortured her slaves? Marie Delphine Lalaurie fits that bill. The mother of four
children, Lalaurie lived in New Orleans in the mid 1800s. As rumors of her
cruelty and torture spread, a mob attacked her house and burned it to the
ground. Lalaurie escaped to Alabama and then later to Paris, where she died in
obscurity. At least two of her daughters lived with her during the peak of her
cruelty toward her slaves, surely marking them for life.