Let’s piss off the Irish woman, said no one, ever.

Against the backdrop of women’s struggle for equality in the workplace, comes the story of a woman whose struggle for equality in her marriage spawned a major war. And not just any war, but the one memorialized in Ireland’s greatest epic, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” or the Tain Bo.

Maeve was Queen of Connaught (in the west of Ireland) in the years prior to 500 AD. In those days, powerful women were common in Ireland—women were the goddesses of war, they were judges and poets, and queens who ruled in their own right. And their equal rights were protected by law—Brehon Law.

Even in this context, Maeve stood out.

Maeve was married to Ailill, and theirs was a happy marriage and an excellent match. As the story goes, they were discussing this one afternoon in bed (another way in which they were excellently matched) and Maeve said that they were the one equal to the other. She said, “In our house there is an absence of meanness, jealousy and fear because we are equal in all things, right down to the cattle we own.” At that Ailill was quiet and was quiet for so long that Maeve asked him what he was thinking, as women do. And the answer got him in trouble, as it generally does happen with men when they answer that question.

Ailill said, “We are not so even Maeve,” and Maeve being Maeve sprang from her bed and immediately ordered an accounting of all of their possessions. They started with their lands and their castles, they weighed out the bolts of fine cloth and counted the pendants and rings and broaches—and they were even. So Maeve sent for the cups and the mead barrels. She had counted the number of their armies and their linens. And they were even. But Ailill shook his head and said, “Still not.” So Maeve ordered a counting of their chicken and hens, their sheep and their bulls.

Now there was one bull— Finnbhennach—that had belonged to Maeve. But being, well bull-headed, Finnbhennach had refused to be owned by a woman and so Maeve had sent him to her husband’s yards. But Finnbhennach was a bull without equal. No matter how many Maeve counted, there were none that were the same—leaving Maeve less equal than her husband. Ailill said, “Let it go Maeve,” but Maeve was not a woman to let it go and she sent her messenger, Fergus Mac Roth, out across Ireland to find a bull equal to her husband’s. It didn’t take Fergus long to find one—the Brown Bull of Cuailnge, belonging to Donn Cuailnge in Ulster.

Maeve sent Fergus to Donn to ask for the loan of the Brown Bull for one year. In return she promised him many gifts of wealth as well as her own friendly thighs. Donn preferred not to ask Ailill how he felt about this but said yes anyway.

That night the men who had accompanied Fergus got into their cups and bragged that they would have taken the Brown Bull even if Donn Cuailnge had not agreed to Maeve’s thighs. A messenger of Donn overheard this and told him, so that in the morning Donn Cuailnge sent for Fergus and withdrew his loan.

Fergus went back to Connaught, thinking Maeve would have his head for this. Instead she said, “The man was right—I would have taken the Bull by force if he had not agreed to it and now I will do so anyway,” and she ordered her men to prepare for battle.

Maeve knew that in going against the Men of Ulster, she would have her hands full. Ulster is in the North of Ireland and was famous for its fighting men. But there was an interesting curse that had been put on the fighting men of Ulster by a goddess named Macha. Macha had been ordered by a king of Ulster to compete in a foot race when she was nine months pregnant with twins. This being an Irish woman, Macha naturally won and after crossing the finish line, she gave birth and then leveled a curse on all the men of Ulster that they would suffer childbirth pangs in the hour of their greatest need.

Maeve knew of this curse and counted on it. And so when she led her armies across Connaught and into Ulster, the curse of Macha came down upon the Men of Ulster. At the hour of their greatest need, they suffered the labor pains of Macha, at home in their beds.

Maeve, knowing the curse would keep them men in their beds, advanced all the way into the heart of Ulster, where she set up camp for the night.

But the legendary hero Cuchulainn was not originally from Ulster and so he was still standing. Maeve said to her husband that she would go out to fight this Cuchulainn herself, that she herself was the equal of any man. So she went out and called for Cuchulainn. But while she was waiting for him, her period came upon her and she left the field, leaving Cuchulainn the victor (so the story goes).

Maeve returned to her home in Connaught, where she eventually died and was buried at Knocknarea, which means “Royal Hill,” while Cuchulainn got the fame and notoriety when the story of the battle was told, even though she was the moving force behind it. The story of the Cattle Raid was told and retold for centuries, until it was finally written down in the 11th century.

Now there are some who say that Maeve, like Cuchulainn, was a folk tale and there are some who say she is half-history, half-tale, as so much is in Ireland. So, which is she? I don’t know for sure, but I will tell you this—to this day, Maeve’s tomb has never been excavated. She is rumored to have been buried standing up and facing Ulster, ready to do battle when awoken.

So far, there’ve been no takers.

#VictorNotVictim    #DameUP

Grit and Grace

Can a teenage girl in a home-sewn costume change the face of ice skating?

50 years ago Peggy Fleming did, when she took home the Gold Medal at the 1968 Olympics in Switzerland.

Today, figure skating is the marquee event of the Winter Olympics, arguably the most glamorous of sports. But the woman who ushered it in had more in common with Tonya Harding than Nancy Kerrigan.

Lionized for her beauty, grace and glamour, Peggy Fleming came from a working-class background. Her dad was a newspaper press operator, and they moved around the country several times. One summer they found themselves homeless and had to make their home at a campground.

Peggy was nine years old when she first stepped on the ice. Her talent was quickly apparent, but nurturing it took sacrifice. Her father drove her to the daily pre-dawn practices and drove the Zamboni at the rink. Her mother sewed her skating costumes and made coaching decisions, moving the family to a new state to place her daughter with the best coaches. When Peggy was 12, her coach and the entire US Skating team were killed in a plane crash en route to the World Championships. In the aftermath of the crash a scholarship fund was set up to support skaters in financial need, of whom Peggy Fleming was one.

Three years later Peggy made it to the Olympics with a new coach and finished 6th. She was 15, but savvy enough to know who and what she wanted to be, saying the experience gave her perspective of her own skating. “I thought, ‘Well, I want to do something different,’ and so I went back and started trying to find my style and to find myself,” she said.

The style she created was visually appealing and her timing was perfect, as the 1968 Olympics were the first games broadcast in color. Her mother also took advantage of the new color technology—she designed the chartreuse green dress Peggy skated in to call to mind the chartreuse liqueur made by local monks in hopes that the French and Swiss would connect with it and applaud her daughter.

Whether they did or not, she made the color iconic and glamorous. During the games, a bad flu broke out in the Olympic village, and Peggy moved in with her mother—who was staying at an unglamorous hotel near the train station. From those digs, she won America’s only gold medal at the 1968 games.

Peggy Fleming stood on the podium many times—in addition to the Olympic wins, she was three-time consecutive World Championship champion from 1966-68 and five-time consecutive U.S. National champion from 1964-68. A kid from the working class, she never stopped working. She turned pro after the 1968 Olympics, skated in Russia during the Cold War, skated at the White House, skated at the unveiling of the restored Statue of Liberty.

In 1998, thirty years after her historic win, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said, “This is another kind of competition, but I’m being coached by an excellent team, and I’ve got a real strong competitive spirit.” She and her husband operated their own vineyard in Northern California for a number of years and one of their most famous wines was one called “Victories Rose”. It was created specifically to raise funds for breast cancer research, and 100% of the funds were donated to research.

Peggy Fleming was inducted into the U.S. & World Figure Skating Halls of Fame in 1976; and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983. In 2003, she received the “Lombardi Award of Excellence” from the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation, awarded annually to an individual who exemplifies the spirit of the Coach. In 1999, she was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the seven athletes who changed the face of sports in the 20th century. The others were Jackie Robinson, Arnold Palmer, Billy Jean King, Pele, Richard Petty and Bill Russell.

From a kid in a campground to a legend who shaped a sport, Peggy Fleming has always made (and continues to make)  grit look graceful.

Watch her Gold Medal performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw9XZAA72lw

#VictorNotVictim  #DameUp


The Chess Queen

In chess, the most powerful player on the board is the Queen. But up until the 1400’s, the Chess Queen’s power more accurately reflected the reality of her position in real life—that of a pawn. What changed the game of chess is a woman who also changed the Game of Thrones in medieval Europe: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Born in 1122 in the south of France, Eleanor was raised by a father who educated her like a man, and named her heir to Aquitaine, his vast Duchy in south and southwest France. His lands dwarfed the then-kingdom of France and when he died, the King of France made a power grab for Eleanor’s inheritance by marrying her to his son Louis. But Eleanor retaliated with a strategic move that enabled her to stay in the game—she negotiated for the right to control her own lands. The King didn’t know it, but he’d just been placed in check.

She was only 15 when she made her move, but it was a play that mapped out the power structure in Europe for the next 300 years.

Even as Queen, living in 12th century Paris paled in comparison with sunny Provence, and her husband didn’t help the situation—Louis’ calling in life was religion, and he lived the ascetic, and celibate, life of a monk. In his fervor he declared for the Crusades, and Eleanor scandalized the Church and the power structure by making the trip with him–scandalous, because the only women who went on Crusade were the prostitutes who accompanied the troops. Perhaps coincidentally, she developed a reputation for sleeping with a number of men on the Crusade, including the King of Jerusalem. The rumors were so strong and the royal marriage so bad that the Church stepped in and attempted counseling, which worked long enough for her to bear two daughters. And then at the age of 30, she left Louis and her marriage—and took her lands with her.

Their divorce opened up a power vacuum on the political stage, and a number of men made attempts to kidnap Eleanor so they could force her into marriage and grab her lands. She outplayed all of them and made it back to her Duchy, where she sent for 19 year-old Henry Plantagenet and made him an offer of marriage. Henry was Duke of Angers and Normandy in North and Northwest France, and his lands equaled Eleanor’s in size. As importantly, their marriage created a combined territory that dominated the French kingdom, leaving Eleanor safe from any royal retaliation.


Eleanor added her resources to Henry’s and several years later he invaded England and laid claim to the throne. Henry and Eleanor were installed as King and Queen in London, and made England their base of operations for their vast empire in England and France. Eleanor bore eight children in 12 or so years, a situation that would have minimized the moves of many women. But like a Chess Queen, Eleanor moved freely all over England and France, traveling constantly to France and Aquitaine, and maintaining a firm grip on the government of her own territories. She also chose her own successor in Aquitaine—her son Richard the Lion Hearted (of Robin Hood fame).

After the birth of her youngest, Eleanor spent more and more time in Aquitaine. She reconciled with her daughters from her first marriage and nurtured the troubadours who wandered Provence. One of those troubadours was Chretien de Troyes, who is credited with the Lancelot stories in the tales of King Arthur. Eleanor is rumored to have been a writer herself, using the name Marie De France. And with her daughters, she was said to be the instigator of the Courts of Love—a tribunal that ruled on affairs of the heart. In one notable case a Count sued his wife for infidelity, because she had fallen in love with a knight. But Eleanor and her Courts ruled the wife was innocent because there was no such thing as marital love!

Her ruling might have been grounded in her own experiences—while she was in France, Henry took up with the fiancée of Richard (who was rumored to be gay and therefore not too troubled by it). Eleanor however had a different point of view and, with her four sons, led a rebellion against Henry. They lost and Henry placed Eleanor under house arrest for many years. But she outlasted him and when he died, her son Richard assumed the throne. Almost immediately, he gave it over to Eleanor and went on Crusade to Jerusalem (where he was reputed to have an affair with the Muslim leader, Saladin).

As the Queen mother, Eleanor excelled at territorial chess. She moved ceaselessly across the board, traveling throughout England to make her presence felt and the kingdom under control. She continued to safeguard Aquitaine, and even returned to the Holy Lands while Richard was on Crusade (bringing his wife to him in an attempt to get him to procreate. It failed).

She continued to travel around throughout her 70’s, arranging marriage alliances for her many grandchildren with thrones throughout Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. At 80, after a winter trip across the Alps to broker a marriage in Spain, Eleanor withdrew from the board and retired to a convent.

Long before the Chess Queen could move freely in a match, Eleanor moved independently and powerfully around medieval Europe. She strategized, gambled, went to war and brokered alliances. Eleanor refused to be check-mated by her gender. She didn’t play like a girl, she played the game to win. Her ability to dominate the board shaped the face of modern-day Europe and redefined the concept of female power.


#VictorNotVictim    #Dame-Up

A Brain, and a Uterus

A headline last week posed this question, “Why is the media so amazed Tammy Duckworth can be both a senator and pregnant?” and it reminded me of another politician who made headlines for her dual roles.

32 year-old Pat Schroeder was sworn in to Congress on a windy, cold, January day in 1973 with two young children, ages six and two, clinging to her skirts and apple juice dribbling down the front of her coat. An older male colleague sniped at her situation, asking how she intended to be a mother and a member of Congress at the same time. She famously replied, “I have a brain and a uterus. I use both.”

If the words feminist and humorist rarely end up in the same sentence together, it’s simply because we haven’t read enough about and by Colorado Congresswoman Schroeder. Pat’s not just a Dame Who Dared to shake things up, she did so with pithy quips and a great sense of humor.


The first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, she once told Pentagon officials that if they were women they’d always be pregnant, because they never said no. She claimed the Reagan administration thought arms control was a kind of deodorant. And yes, it was she who first coined the term “The Teflon President” to describe Ronald Reagan. She thought of it as she was cooking eggs for breakfast for her family, and if I thought I could come up with lines that memorable, I might start cooking breakfast for my own family.

Pat Schroeder walked onto the national stage at a time when people still did expect women to stay home and cook. There were only 14 other women in the House when she entered, and zero women in the Senate, an abysmal stat that was reflected in the 1970’s era poster, “A woman’s place is in the House, and the Senate.”

Women, and especially mom-women, just didn’t run for national office 45 years ago—which may be why the FBI monitored Pat Schroeder and her staff during her first campaign, even hiring someone to break into her house. Because, you know, a woman running for Congress was suspect. Later rebuked for “running as a woman”, she shrugged, “do I have a choice?”

Pat persisted and became a founding member of the Women’s Congressional Caucus, and a co-chair for ten years (her husband James co-founded his own Capitol Hill Group, “The Dennis Thatcher Club”, for the spouses of female politicians). The Caucus was a force behind legislation such as the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act because yes, you could be fired for being pregnant in this country. And it was their persistence—years before #MeToo—that forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow Anita Hill to testify. Because, yup, they were going to appoint him to the highest court in the land without allowing his accuser to testify.

There is a famous photo of Schroeder and other Reps from the Caucus marching up the steps of the Capitol to confront the Committee. As Schroeder recalls, Majority Leader Mitchell said, “we can’t let strangers in here.” They later learned Joe Biden had cut a deal in the men’s gym to keep the hearings moving along. It all sounds very 19th century, but it was actually the end of the 20th, and Schroeder’s one of the women who hauled us into the 21st with her tenacity and laser focus on women’s issues.

She briefly ran for President in 1987, after Gary Hart crashed and burned. When she withdrew from the campaign, she did so in tears and her emotional reaction was parodied on SNL. Schroeder herself simply said she’d make a great spokesperson for Kleenex.

Schroeder retired from Congress in 1997, but she didn’t retire her humor. A year later she published her memoir, “24 Years of Housework and the Place is Still a Mess.”


#Dame-up  #VictorNotVictim

There ain’t nothing like a Dame.

A number of years ago I was engaged in a battle—one of many skirmishes in the war we like to call divorce. The downside to divorce is that you cannot legally kill your enemy, whereas if he’s on a battlefield or manning a drone, it’s perfectly acceptable to blow his head off.

But I digress.

One afternoon I was in the library with my kids, browsing for something that would take my mind off my situation. I happened upon “The Warrior Queens” by Antonia Fraser, a collection of stories about women who led their countries in war. My first thought was, maybe I could pick up some tips. And my second was, are there enough of them to fill a book? It turns out there were.
The first story was about Boadicea, the Celtic Queen who led her tribe in revolt against the Romans in 61 B.C. I was fascinated by her—she was bloodthirsty and fierce and tens of thousands of men followed her into successful battles. Reading about a woman with that kind of strength made me feel better—it made me feel that I wasn’t the first woman in history to face a terrible enemy on the field. And if a woman in 61 BC could survive a war, I could, too. Fraser’s book ending up inspiring a 25-year (and on-going) love affair with powerful women throughout history.

I’m fascinated with these women because sometimes we get lazy and think equal rights have always existed. Oh, wait. They don’t yet.

The women you’ll read about here are inspirational, and we need a lot of inspiration these days. Role models are important. The former actress turned girl-power activist Geena Davis says, “If she can see it, she can be it,” and she’s right. Perspective is equally important—sometimes we need to see our struggle in the context of what’s come before, so we can better understand how to move forward. And sometimes we just need to be inspired by kick-as women, like those you’re gonna read about on “Dames Who Dare.”

What defines a Dame? For me, it’s a woman who rises above her situation, and who identifies herself as a victor, and not a victim. A Dame doesn’t give much of a damn about what anyone else thinks. She does what she needs to do and she frequently does it with humor.
Read on and let me know what you think constitutes a Dame.
#Dame-up. #VictorNotVictim