History often remembers women who seduced their way to power as so-called "bad girls." These intriguing women disregarded the rules of respectable behavior, benefited from private relationships, and amassed everything from material goods to social standing to political influence. Critics and naysayers often vilified them as dangerous, sly sirens who relied on the power of seduction to manipulate and control the men in their lives. After all, power and influence were, more often than not, considered unbecoming for proper ladies, and those who achieved such goals were automatically suspect. Their private affairs were anything but private, forcing them to endure constant scrutiny and ridicule. To cope with this overexposure and vilification, they became femme fatales and were branded "scarlet women" for what people saw as their scandalous lives.
These scandalous ladies of yesteryear are more than historical seductresses – rather than bad girls, they were actually determined, innovative women who used one of the few tools they were allowed which afforded them any power – their sexuality – to gain advantages from relationships to influential men. For their affections, they received wealth, gifts, protections, privileges, and diverse roles. Though they were labeled scandalous during their lives and even in moder-day history books, they are examples of powerful women who were unwilling to play by the restrictive rules pushed upon them.
As a daughter of Rome's famed Julio-Claudian dynasty, Julia Agrippina the Younger was born into a life of privilege. She was directly connected by blood and marriage to five Roman emperors: Caesar Augustus, her great-grandfather; Tiberius, her great-uncle; Caligula, her brother; Claudius, her uncle; and Nero, her son. She wasn't satisfied with being an appendage and living life on the sidelines, as elite Roman women were expected to do.
Though Agrippina's life was always full of drama and intrigue – in 39 AD, she was temporarily exiled for plotting against her brother, Caligula – her reputation as a ruthless, scheming femme fatale began in earnest in 49 AD, when she seduced uncle-by-blood and new emperor Claudius into marriage, thus making her Empress of Rome. Even by Roman standards, such a marriage was considered incestuous and morally suspect.
Agrippina wielded her newfound power with relish. She convinced her uncle to name Nero, her son from a previous marriage, his heir. Conveniently, Claudius passed in 54 AD, and many suspected Agrippina of foul play. Nero became the new emperor and, recognizing his mother's thirst for power, eventually ordered her execution.
Harriette Wilson was one of Georgian England's most prolific courtesans and shrewdest writers. Born and bred in London, she began her career at the tender age of 15, when she became mistress to an earl. She quickly became a fixture of London high society, even as she was publicly shunned – but privately enjoyed – by its leading members.
Wilson racked up an impressive list of lovers, including prime ministers, war heroes, and royals: the Duke of Wellington, George IV, Lord Canning, and Lord Palmerston, among dozens of others, counted her as a mistress at various points in time. Her numerous trysts built her a network of powerful men to whom she could turn when in need.
Wilson eventually fell on hard times, but devised an ingenious solution in the 1820s: she penned a memoir and blackmailed former lovers who wished to preserve their anonymity. The choice was clear – pay Wilson, or their names would be published in the text. In this way, she used her illicit history as leverage to generate an income. If money is power, she used her romantic liaisons to get both.
As the first official royal mistress of France from 1444–50, Agnès Sorel commanded power and influence in the court of King Charles VII. The brazenness of Charles's affection for Sorel scandalized the French court and earned her many enemies. Similarly, Sorel's fashion choices were as bold and daring as her public affair: she wore her dresses so that one breast was always completely exposed.
Charles gifted Sorel lands, a private residence, and mountains of jewels – including what might be the first cut diamond. She did not seek royal favors only for herself, however: Sorel used her position to advance the fortunes and standing of her family by securing them positions in court. Her tenure was relatively brief – she passed due to mercury ingestion at the age of 28 in 1450. Some even suspect foul play was involved in her demise.
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The iconic, controversial First Lady of Argentina began life in a small town in 1919 as Eva Duarte, an illegitimate daughter with dreams of stardom. She moved to Buenos Aires as a teen and landed several acting and modeling jobs. Though few consider her a great actress, she managed her career well enough to emit the illusion of success.
Though Eva's rise to stardom was not quite as scandalous as Andrew Lloyd Webber claims in Evita, she have much to gain when she met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944. Indeed, she unabashedly attached herself to his coattails. On the night of their first meeting, she even threw his teenaged mistress out of the house, demonstrating that, as far as she was concerned, there was room for only one woman in Juan Perón's life.
Eva's film career was boosted once Perón allegedly funded her production company. Such favors were not one-sided, however: she also supported his political agenda and was a glossy, charismatic social ambassador for his politics. Eva and Juan married in 1945 and moved into the Casa Rosada the next year as Argentina's President and First Lady.
Thanks to Eva's influence, women benefited from Perón's working-class reforms. Critics of the Peróns dismissed her, claiming she had no business in politics, but her influence in her husband's government never truly diminished, and she has since been regarded as an influential female figure in 20th-century politics.
Eva's tenure as First Lady was brief: she passed from cervical cancer at the age of 33. Though Perón's third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, would eventually become the official first female President of Argentina in 1974, Eva Perón's role first as a mistress and then as a wife nonetheless afforded her great power.