History often remembers women who seduced their way to power as bad girls. 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, 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. in 49 AD, when she seduced uncle-by-blood and new emperor Claudius into marriage, becoming Empress of Rome. 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.
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. She met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944.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 Eva and Juan married in 1945 and moved into the Casa Rosada the next year as Argentina’s President and First Lady.
Theodora was born to an actress and a bear trainer. Historians generally agree she was a prostitute, actress, and Christian ascetic before the age of 20, and was engaged as a mistress to men of power and influence. In 522 AD, when she was in her early 20s, Theodora met Justinian, heir to the Byzantine Empire. Justinian assumed the throne in 527 AD with Theodora at his side.
History has cast Cleopatra as the ultimate femme fatale, whose influence supposedly ruined a good man’s career and resulted in his death. But Cleopatra was a shrewd politician whose primary objective was to preserve the autonomy of Egypt in the face of Roman aggression and expansion. Cleopatra first had an affair with the great Julius Caesar, and even bore him a son. After Caesar’s murder at the hands of senators in 44 BC, Cleopatra took as her lover and eventual husband one of his devoted comrades, Marc Antony. By 30 BC, Caesar’s great nephew, adopted son, and heir, Octavian, defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s forces on land and sea and annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire. Antony and Cleopatra each took their own life – Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra pressed an asp to her breast.
Mary Anne Clarke Mixed Business with Pleasure, Securing an Income as a Mistress
Married at 15 and separated only a few years later, British gal Mary Anne Clarke chose to be a mistress to generate income for her young family. In early 19th London, eventually attracting the attention of Frederick, Duke of York. But he wasn’t just any old duke: he happened to be the second son of King George III and commander-in-chief of the British Army. In 1806, when he ended the affair, she did not go quietly into that dark night. As payback, Clarke loudly alleged that she had been trafficking in military appointments while she was the Duke’s mistress: officers would bribe Clarke for promotions, and she pocketed the income. Though the scandal gave Clarke momentarily celebrity, she eventually fled her creditors to France, dying penniless and alone in 1852.
Wallis Simpson was a glamorous American divorcee who caught the eye of future King of England Edward VIII. Edward was known as a playboy prince – everyone assumed his fling with Simpson would be short lived. Turned out, When Edward ascended the throne after his father died in 1936; he made it clear he wanted Simpson at his side. The relatively conservative British public would never accept a divorced woman as their queen. Rather than reigning without the woman he loved by his side, Edward abdicated in favor of his younger brother, who became George VI. Simpson and Edward married soon after. Though Simpson never achieved the privilege or title of a queen, she was dubbed Duchess of Windsor. Not bad for a girl from Baltimore.
Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who led Italy through World War II, had a string of mistresses, only one stuck by him until the bitter end. Clara Petacci came from a well connected family became Mussolini’s mistress at 19.Mussolini was hopelessly devoted to his young mistress. Their affair came crashing down with Mussolini’s fascist regime – in April 1945, the pair attempted to flee the country, but were caught, executed, and hung upside down in Milan.