History often remembers women who seduced their way to power as bad girls. These intriguing women disregarded the rules of respectable behavior, benefited from private relationships, and amassed material goods, social standing, and political voices. 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 was, more often than not, considered unbecoming of proper ladies, and those who achieved it were automatically suspect. Their private affairs were anything but private, and they succumbed to public scrutiny, ridicule, and criticism. So they became femme fatales who were branded scarlet women for their life choices.
These scandalous ladies of yesteryear are more than historical seductresses - instead of bad girls, they were actually badass women who used one of the few tools afforded to them (their sexuality) to gain advantages from relationships to influential men. For their affections, they got wealth, gifts, protections, privileges, and diverse roles. Though they were labeled scandalous during their lives and in history books, they are examples of powerful women who were unwilling to play by the rule books handed to 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 was her great-grandfather, Tiberius was her great-uncle, Caligula was her brother, Claudius was her uncle, and Nero was her son. But she wasn't satisfied with being an appendage and living life on the sidelines, as elite Roman women tended to live relatively limited public lives.
Though Agrippina's life had always been 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, becoming Empress of Rome. Even by wild and loose 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 - some say too conveniently - Claudius died in 54, and many claimed Agrippina poisoned him. Nero became the new emperor and, recognizing his mother's thirst for power, eventually ordered her death.see more on Agrippina the Younger
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 literally dozens of others, counted her as a mistress at one time or another. Her numerous trysts built her a network of powerful men to whom she could turn.
Wilson eventually fell on hard times, but came up with a genius solution in the 1820s: she wrote a memoir and blackmailed former lovers who wished to preserve their anonymity. The choice was clear - pay a lump or continuous sum to Wilson or their names would be published in the text. In this way, she used her illicit history as leverage to generate an income, a courtesan showing just how powerless leaders of the nation could be. If money is power, she used her romantic liaisons to get both.see more on Harriette Wilson
As the first official royal mistress of France from 1444 - 1450, 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. Sorel's fashion choices were as bold and daring as her public affair: she wore her dresses so that one breast was completely exposed.
Charles gifted Sorel lands, a private residence, and mountains of jewels - including what might be the first cut diamond. But she did not seek royal favors only for herself: Sorel used her position to advance the fortunes and standing of her family by securing them positions at court. Her tenure was relatively brief - she died of mercury poisoning at the age of 28 in 1450. The jury is still out as to whether or not she was poisoned by her enemies.see more on Agnès Sorel
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 found acting and modeling jobs. She was by no means a great actress, but managed her career well enough to give the illusion of success.
Though Eva's rise to stardom was not quite as scandalous as Andrew Lloyd Webber makes it out to be in Evita, it's true she had a lot 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 kicked his (teenaged) mistress to the curb, making it clear there was room for only one woman in his life.
Eva's film career got a boost once Perón personally gave money to her production company - he was quite literally investing in his mistress. But the favors were not one-sided: 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 as a meddling prostitute who had no business in politics, but her influence in her husband's government never truly diminished, and she has since been regarded as an important female figure in 20th century politics.
Eva's tenure as First Lady was brief: she died from cervical cancer at 33. Though it would be Perón's third wife who became the official first female President of Argentina (or any country) in 1974, Eva Perón's role first as a mistress and then as a wife nonetheless afforded her great power.
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