A long time ago in England, a warrior queen called Boudicca ransacked the legions of Rome. She was strong, she was beautiful, and she apparently had a chariot with scythes sticking out of the wheels. When I first heard Boudicca’s story at the age of 8, I wanted to be just like her, or at least like her pictures: strong, resilient, with shiny hair streaming in a supernatural breeze of self-belief.
Except that that wasn’t the real story. The real story, as with so much of women’s history, was darker, more violent and frankly frightening. Boudicca did lead the armies of the Iceni tribe in the first century A.D., but it was only later that I learned why. The Romans, at least according to the historian Tacitus, stole her kingdom, assaulted her and raped her daughters. The bladed chariot was as mythical as the manicure she brandishes on the cover of a recent coffee-table empowerment manifesto. We have no way of knowing if Boudicca was beautiful. We do know that she answered abuse and humiliation by burning London to the ground, which is a really extreme way of leaning in to your career.
We have inherited a decluttered version of women’s history, optimistic and neatly folded, discarding everything that does not serve the way we want to see ourselves in a society where strong men scream their way to power and strong women are supposed to pick up the pieces. If we’re going to spend a mere four weeks out of 52 on that history as we do each March when Women’s History Month arrives, we ought to make it count, even if that means embracing a messier and more discomfiting version of the past.