The first Awesome Woman™ to grace these pages is Marie Antoinette, born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. First of all, I would like to address a centuries-old, blatant lie. There is zero evidence that Marie Antoinette ever actually spoke the words “let them eat cake.” When I was in high school my teacher still used this quote to illustrate just how far removed from reality the French queen was (and why she was executed). As biographer Antonia Fraser notes, “Marie Antoinette was a generous patron of charity and moved by the plight of the poor when it was brought to her attention, thus making the statement out-of-character for her.” This alleged-thing-she-never-said is actually a remnant of a xenophobic and misogynistic smear campaign targeting Marie Antoinette. Scholars have linked Marie Antoinette’s treatment to that of Hillary Clinton in recent times. Since she was Austrian, and relations between Austria and France had not been quite friendly (historians refer to it as the ‘Habsburg rivalry’), Marie Antoinette was distrusted.
The smear campaigns that were launched against her and circulated in pamphlets (libelles) were vile: “Marie Antoinette was falsely accused in the libelles of having an affair with Lafayette, whom she loathed, and, as was published in Le Godmiché Royal (“The Royal Dildo“), of having a sexual relationship with the English Baroness ‘Lady Sophie Farrell’ of Bournemouth, a well-known lesbian of the time. Publication of such calumnies continued to the end, climaxing at her trial with an accusation of incest with her son. There is no evidence to support the accusations.” The campaign was successful: Marie Antoinette’s popularity rapidly evaporated and after the French Revolution she was executed by guillotine in 1793.
Speaking of Marie Antoinette’s head, what she is most famous for was her trend-setting fashion style and particularly her Big Hair. Her signature hairdo, called Pouf, was created by hairdresser Léonard Autié and became all the rage at courts in Europe everywhere. Here’s an informative documentary about Marie Antoinette and the Pouf :
There’s also a lecture about the influence of Marie Antoinette’s fashion style from the University of Michigan entitled “Marie Antoinette, Queen of Fashion”:
During my search for a personal seal of Marie Antoinette I stumbled upon something totally awesome. In 2016 Evelyn Farr has published a book that got France all worked up. The book’s title is I Love You Madly – Marie-Antoinette: The Secret Letters and in it, Farr drops the bombshell that Marie Antoinette’s two youngest children were in all probability not fathered by King Louis, but by her lover, Count Axel von Fersen, the Swedish ambassador. Another demonstration of how utterly exciting diplomatic history is! Modern technology made it possible to read the parts of letters Marie Antoinette had tried to make intelligible. The Telegraph reports on this project, noting that “[a]ll previous attempts at deciphering the censored messages, meticulously obscured by circular scribbles to mask Marie Antoinette’s original handwriting, proved fruitless. Now, however, a team working at France’s Research Centre for the Conservation of Collections, CRCC, has managed to extract the original text handwritten by Marie Antoinette. Using cutting-edge x-ray and different infrared scanners, researchers said they were able to ‘discriminate between the two levels of writing’ thanks to slight variations in copper content.” Fascinating stuff! In her last letter to Count Von Fersen, Marie Antoinette writes “I will end [this letter] but not without telling you, my dear and gentle friend, that I love you madly and that there is never a moment in which I do not adore you.” You can read a review of Ferr’s book at this blog. This book goes straight onto my Wants list! I also discovered that Stephan Zweig wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette, which I definitely want to check out, so there will probably be more blog posts dedicated to her in the future.
In case you wonder how Count Axel von Fersen fared after the French Revolution: things did not end well for him either. “Nineteen years later, on June 20, 1810, a Stockholm mob, wrongly believing that he had poisoned the heir to the Swedish throne, beat him to death with sticks and stones. He was 54.” Ouch.
Recently, somebody shared a video about automatons on Twitter. One of the automatons features in this video was an automaton built in 1784 by the German cabinetmaker David Roentgen (1743-1807), made in the likeness of Marie-Antoinette and programmed to play eight different songs. Now how cool is that?! It was presented to King Louis XVI, who gifted it to his wife. “It’s said that the beautiful lace dress was made from fabric of one of Marie Antoinette’s dresses, and that mannequin even has some of her real hair.” Très cool! This is what it looks and sounds like:
The automaton is currently one of the “stars” of the collection of the Musée des arts et métiers de Paris. And rightfully so, it is an amazing piece of art and artistry.
Why Marie Antoinette is truly an Awesome Woman™:
 Fraser, Antonia (2001). Marie Antoinette (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-48948-5, pp. xviii, 160; Lever, Évelyne (2006). Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. London: Portrait. ISBN 978-0-7499-5084-2., pp. 63–5; Lanser, Susan S. (2003). “Eating Cake: The (Ab)uses of Marie-Antoinette”. In Goodman, Dena. Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-93395-7., pp. 273–290.