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FABULOUS FEMMES

by David Westheimer

 

When I tried to list my ten favorite movies I had twelve films on my list before I could stop myself. Anyway, it got me in a listing mood and I thought I’d list the ten most famous women who popped into my head and this time when I had thought of ten that would be it. After I had my ten, I quit listing even though I hadn’t included three I intended to when the idea occurred to me.

One of the first names I thought of was Helen of Troy. But Helen wasn’t eligible. She wasn’t a real person. And I’d really wanted to list her, too, so I could tell an anecdote I remembered from maybe 50 years ago. John Crosby, the gifted TV reviewer for The New York Times, had written some unforgettable lines about the actress who played Helen in a TV production of The Iliad. He didn’t think she was good-looking enough to play Helen of Troy. He put it this way:

“Was this ‘The face that launched a thousand ships?’ A hundred, maybe.”

Back to my fab ten.

We’ll start with Cleopatra. She was the queen of Egypt who dallied with Julius Caesar and later committed suicide by clutching an asp to her bosom. Pam Tillis, the country singer daughter of country singer Mel Tillis did an Egyptian-themed comic video titled, Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.

Delilah, the Philistine, dallied , too, nefariously. She dallied with Sampson, being paid to do so by her fellow Philistines to discover the source of his superhuman strength and neutralize it. When she learned he derived it from his flowing locks she gave him a quick trim while he was napping and the Philistine soldiers easily put the arm on him.

Jezebel, the Zidonian, fooled around with King Ahab of Israel but technically you couldn’t call it dallying because she was married to him. But the Bible says she done him wrong so if it wasn’t dallying it was as bad as dallying. And her name means bad girl to this very day.

Jael, the Kenite, is another kettle of fish. She didn’t dally, she killed. A very bad dude and enemy of Israel, General Sisera, the Canaanite. Wounded, he took shelter in her tent, where she gave him sanctuary. When he fell asleep, she drove a tent peg into his brain. Which was a patriotic thing to do. In a novel I wrote for fun, Going Public, I named a character Jael Naylor in tribute to her.

Lady Godiva is famous for the riding habit she didn’t wear when she rode her horse starkers down the street in Coventry protesting her husband’s onerous taxes on the citizens of the town. The good citizens of Coventry showed their appreciation by not looking at her as she rode by. Except one of them, a butcher named Tom, giving the world a phrase still in wide usage today. Peeping Tom.

Now for the notable ladies of my own era, beginning with Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most admired and loved American women ever. Wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she had the longest tenure as First Lady, 1933-1945. She worked hard for many good causes and fought racial discrimination tenaciously, resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization refused to allow Marian Anderson, one of the greatest voices in opera, to perform in its Hall. And fully supported flight training for qualified young black men (the noted Tuskegee Airmen). She somehow even found time to write a syndicated newspaper column, My Day.

Rosa Parks, “Mother of the Civil Rights movement.” In Montgomery, alabama, in December 1955, because she was tired, her feet hurt and she was stubborn and fed up, she would not move to the back of the bus. She was arrested and fined. So the black people of Montgomery boycotted the bus company for more than a year. It almost broke the bus company. More importantly, it brought a then-little known preacher named Martin, Luther King into the fray and the rest is history.

Oveta Culp Hobby. As a full colonel, first commander of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps in World War II, first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, publisher of the Houston Post.

Hillary Rodham Clinton. First Lady. Senator from New York. My favorite Hillary-Bill Clinton joke: They are driving in Arkansas and stop at a service station for gasoline. The attendant turns out to be an old boyfriend of Hillary’s. When they drive off, Bill grins at Hillary and says, “Where would you be if you had married him instead of me?” Hillary says, “I’d be married to the President of the United States.”

Oprah Winfrey. Lady Bountiful. Maybe the most loved woman in the land. A billionaire. Warm, witty, generous; makes impossible dreams come true for deserving people.

And the three noteworthy ladies I forgot when I was picking my ten — Lilith, Mata Hari and Florence Nightingale.

 


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