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A tale of women

Thousands of Iranian women have been arrested over the last week for not being sufficiently covered up. One photo of the event showed a woman wearing a heavy scarf and a long-sleeved coat being taken to a police station. Her small son was sobbing at her side. According to Helen Szamuely at EU Referendum, “All but a handful [of the women] have signed an admission of guilt and a formal apology. Thirteen will stand trial and an unspecified number has been given psychological counselling.”

I wonder how a culture benefits from oppressing women and immediately have my answer. It doesn’t. The undemocratic, troubled countries of the Mideast are the evidence.

Earlier today I was researching England's Henry I, who lost his son when the White Ship sank with almost everyone on board. Prince William was lost trying to rescue his sister. After his son’s death, Henry surprised his barons by asking them to pledge that his daughter Matilda would be their Queen when he died. Henry’s nephew Stephen and the barons swore, but after Henry died, Stephen changed his mind.

Stephen should not have been surprised when Matilda landed with an army to recover her throne. His father had gone on Crusade around 1100, and had written to his wife Adela from Jerusalem, “Keep well, govern your land excellently, and deal with your sons and your men honourably” (Oxford DNB).

The Crusaders expected that their wives would rule in their absence. This is not an example of advanced thinking, but it is an example of practical genius. Normans, French, and Britons understood that the mothers of their sons were their best allies, and would protect their lands. More, they believed that women could handle armed men and estates. Adela did. The patron of poets, she “proved an admirable administrator, and provided well for her sons” (Oxford DNB).

Matilda lost the support of Londoners by refusing to acknowledge their charter of liberties, and was forced to flee to Oxford where she was besieged by Stephen, who had escaped captivity in Lincoln. “Matilda escaped in white robes by a postern, and crossing the river unobserved on the ice, made her way to Abingdon” (Green, A Short History of England).

England was thrown into anarchy as Stephen and Matilda and their allies battled for the throne. Throughout, Stephen's wife Matilda was "his constant companion and resolute supporter. In the years of struggle she took an active role, bringing troops to besiege Dover Castle in 1138, and mustering an army on the south bank opposite London in the summer of 1141. She took a prominent part in all the peace negotiations during the reign, including those with the Scots" (Oxford DNB).

The Church finally managed to arrange a peace that pleased the hostile Matilda. Stephen remained King, but when he died, the crown would go to Matilda's son, Henry.

In his turn, Henry II married the woman we know as Eleanor of Aquitaine. She also ruled armed men. She was not quite the support Henry would have preferred but she, too, was a literary patron and inspiration to poets.