Let’s play a game, shall we? I promise to keep it short and simple. I’ll say a word, and you tell me everything that comes to mind. Ready?
I’ll give you a minute…
Now, if the words that spring to mind are “crown,” “castle,” “ball,” and “prince,” I think it’s fair to assume that your (our) conception of what it means to be a princess has been shaped almost exclusively by Walt Disney.
When I planned our units of study for this school year, I wanted at least one topic tailored to the interests of my young daughter. I chose to study the lives of real princesses. We kept a blank poster on the wall, with some colored markers at the ready, and plunged into The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, by Shirin Yim Bridges. Each time we read about a new princess, we jotted down significant words or phrases, attempting to paint an accurate picture of their lives and their character. Here’s a sampling from the completed poster:
“Loved her people”
“Didn’t get what she wanted”
It’s not quite the list my children expected to compile, but story after story bore out the truth: being a princess in the real world has little to do with wearing fancy dresses or marrying the handsome prince.
For Sacajawea, being a princess of the Shoshone tribe wasn’t much of an advantage. She was kidnapped, forced into an abusive marriage, and shipped off across the continent with an infant on her back. During her short life, she sat on the throne of nothing but her own attitude and choices. Yet the valiant young Sacajawea chose courage and contentment when hatred and bitterness were hers by right.
We’re familiar with Elizabeth Tudor, who was accused of conspiring against her sister, thrown into the Tower, and kept for years under house arrest. And many of us have heard of Hawaii’s Princess Ka’iluani, whose beloved island was taken from her before she ever had the chance to become queen. But Bridges focuses on some of history’s lesser-known heroines, like Nur Jahan of India. She married a Moghul king, took over financial management of his household, encouraged economic growth in the empire, and influenced the fashion and architecture of her age.
Artemisia of Caria was princess of a small kingdom under the control of the Persian king, Xerxes. Artemisia not only learned to sail ships on the Mediterranean; she served as admiral of a fleet of Persian ships during the Battle of Salamis. This in a time when women were not educated, not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies, and rarely allowed to leave their homes!
Then there’s Qutlugh Terkan Khatun. (Ever come across her name?) She was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. Though a kind man bought and educated her, she was unfortunate enough to grow into a beautiful woman who was endlessly pursued and claimed by eager suitors. At last, when she found herself in a good and loving (and long-lived) marriage, she showed great generosity and kindness to her people. She distributed food to the needy, installed water and drainage systems in small villages. She built and kept gardens in thousands of towns. When her husband died, her people (followers of Islam) insisted she continue in his stead. When rivals attempted to unseat her and were later caught and imprisoned by their Mongol overlords, she traveled to the Mongol court and pleaded mercy for her enemies.
Shirin Yim Bridges’ collection is a treasure. Her histories remind us that the life of a princess is not one to be envied. Those who made their mark on the world were the ones who refused the easy road. In spite of danger and loss and opposition, these women chose courage and kindness. When they didn’t get what they wanted, when there was no ball and no handsome prince, they fought like warriors, they loved their people well. Their lives are worth remembering.
Other titles in the series include: Hatshepsut of Egypt, Isabella of Castile, and Gorghaghtani of Mongolia.