Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Women’s History Month – Vicki León’s Treasure Trove of Women’s Stories

Vicki doing research in Egypt ...

I remember first seeing an Uppity Women book in the bookstore of the Huntington Library. I felt like giving a cheer – what a fabulous title, fabulous subject and fabulous woman who had written such a clever and enlightening book! I later met the fabulous woman herself at an SCBWI retreat and have since attended her very entertaining and helpful non-fiction workshop. I am pleased to be interviewing her for Women’s History Month. Vicki León is the ‘uppity’ author of nine books on women’s history. Her forthcoming ‘encyclopedia’ called 4000 Years of Uppity Women, will be published this fall by MJF Books in hardcover and e-book formats.

When and why did you first decide to write about the fascinating, unusual and amazing details of the lives of women in history?

As a 10-year-old, I already had a burning curiosity about the girls and women of long ago. In the 1950s, however, I found little to read except standard fare about Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and a few other gals, most of whom came to bad ends, according to the books I devoured.

Later, as a young woman, I was lucky enough to live for years in Spain and other countries around the Med. Visiting archaological sites, exploring ancient ruins, strolling through walled cities, I got to walk in female footsteps of long ago. It really fired my imagination. Eventually fortune favored me again-- I studied with two professors who taught me about the underpinnings of history, and gave me the tools to become a historical detective.

If you could go back in time, which woman you’ve researched would you most like to meet?

Tough choice-- I’ve profiled over a thousand women. One triumphant example I love is Lavinia Fontana, a 16th century Italian painter who enjoyed spectacular success. She got prestigious, juicily-paid commissions from royals and from the Pope, did gorgeous self-portraits, won fame, received medals, painted until she was 62--and to top it off, she talked her spouse into being a house-husband for what turned out to be 11 children!

Along with the admirable ‘do-gooders’ from history, I also have a sneaky admiration for some of the ‘do-badders.’ Take Catalina de Erauso--I call her “the nun turned top-gun.” At 15, she broke out of a Spanish nunnery, threw together some male duds, and got to the New World, where she terrorized Panama, Peru and Chile for two decades. Even when finally caught for various crimes, she turned it around by confessing to a bishop that she was still a virgin! It being 1620, that won her admiration instead of a hanging. It’s a great tale---and she wrote her memoirs, which survived and make superb reading.

I’m surprised to hear that her account is still around. Did you find any more women who’ve left something tangible in our times?

Yes, and that brings to mind my biggest gripe. I do a great many speeches and workshops to groups of women eager to learn more about their foremothers. But I often hear them comment along the lines of, “What a pity that nothing has survived from the gals of long ago...”

On the contrary! I’ve found countless primary source examples from these women. They are amazing. Books like Catalina’s memoirs; paintings like those of Lavinia (over 135 are still around). There are other artifacts--from a legal document signed by Cleopatra VII to the huge “Old Glory” flag sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill (now gracing the Smithsonian).

What is strangest occupation you’ve come across for a woman?

In ancient times, one of the weirdest jobs had to be the gal who played the water-organ for each of the gladiatorial matches. During the Crusades, bizarre but vital work was done by the washerwomen who accompanied the Crusader armies. Their task: to de-louse the men daily! Virgin reconstruction specialist was another unusual niche. An Italian doctor named Trotula described this in her compendium of medical works that are still around.

Which woman has impressed you most by her achievements?

I would love to time-travel to the first century AD and spend time in Alexandria, Egypt, with a woman whose exact name we don’t firmly know—she was called Mary Profetissa, Maria the Jewess, and other monikers that may be pseudonyms. She was an alchemist, out to find the Philosopher’s Stone. I first found her in an unusual way; in Spain, I once tried to make flan and needed a double-boiler---which was called a ‘Mary’s bath’ in Spanish. Turned out that 2000 year ago, that long-ago Mary had invented the double boiler, along with the still and other inventions which turned the alchemy craze into the hard science of chemistry. Besides writing her profile in an Uppity Women book, I got to explore alchemy further in my latest nonfiction, called How to Mellify a Corpse.

Any tips for beginning writers of non-fiction – for instance, how best to approach experts?

We live in an ideal age for such matters, since we are all connected cybernetically. It’s child’s play these days to contact experts--to reap the benefits, however, the writer needs to approach with courtesy, timeliness, and enough knowledge to ask intelligent questions.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing two books at once: a third nonfiction for Walker Books on biology, sex, and weird medicine in ancient times; and an updated, expanded compendium of the “best of the best” uppity women for MJF Books. It will appear in hardcover and e-book form this fall, I’m told. Both projects offer wonderful chances to expand more on my passion for telling more stories about unsung women from our past. Lucky me!

Thank you, Vicki - can't wait to read your next book! 

Vicki’s website and blog can be found at www.vickileon.com/blog


  1. Fascinating interview, Diane and Vicki! How to Mellify a Corpse is my new favorite book title.

  2. How intriguing! I love the term foremothers. It makes absolute sense. Great interview, Diane and Vicki.

  3. Thanks Erica and Megan--Vicki is such fun to talk to ...she always has something fascinating to share!