by Bea Wayne
Why We Should Care: Empress Theodora became one of the greatest rulers of the Byzantine Empire, despite growing up an orphaned peasant girl in Constantinople. She worked variously as a dancer, an actress and a wool spinner until her incredible beauty caught the eye of Justinian, the emperor’s nephew. The ottoman equivalent to Wallis Simpson, Theodora convinced Justinian to change the law that prohibited marriage across classes, and soon she and Justinian were crowned empress and emperor of the Byzantine Empire. More than a skilled social climber, Theodora was a highly intelligent and influential ruler, who instituted incredibly important reforms for women and children.
Three Reforms We Admire: Protection of women in divorce cases, the right of women to inherit property and keep their dowry, and legal protection from abusive husbands. Not until the twentieth century would women’s rights and their position in society be as protected and respected.
Style Best Described As: Gilded empress, but with sex appeal (she did seduce royalty, after all)
What High School Text Books Didn’t Say: When she worked as a dancer, Theodora made a name for herself with her portrayal of Leda and the Swan, where she stripped off her clothes and lay on her back while attendants scattered barley on her groin, after which geese picked up the barley with their bills.
How She’s Celebrated: She is celebrated as saint by the Orthodox Church every November 14th. So you could light some incense in commemoration of her pioneering feminism. Or, if you aren’t religious, you could try that geese stuff. Whatever suits your fancy.