Invisible: A Queen and a Movie Star

(This was originally written for my podcast, which you can find on iTunes or Podbean.

A few weeks ago on International Women’s Day, one of the women I follow on twitter issued this challenge: name one woman that has influenced you outside of family and relationships.

I couldn’t think of one.

I’m a proud feminist and I`ve read numerous works by wonderful authors, but outside of my mom and my amazing female friends, I couldn’t think of someone I considered a primary influence. Every name that came to my head was someone I knew personally.

Now part of that is the people closest to us have the most impact. But another part of it is that our culture does not teach us that boys should have women as role models.

My life experience as a two hundred pound white male is very different than my female friends and colleagues. I don’t walk into an underground parking lot at night with the keys between my fingers or leave a pub fingering a can of mace in my purse.

Hell, when I was younger I considered International Women’s Day a joke. I was parroting the idiocy of the men around me and older than me and had zero understanding about societal imbalance or misogyny.

I didn’t understand where the term “women’s work” had come from, and so I learned that it was coined for the time before the industrial revolution, when we lived in an agrarian society. In those days, the only jobs a woman could do were the ones that allowed them to have the kids nearby. That meant cooking and cleaning. But even after the industrial revolution changed that, and even after WWII proved that women were more than capable of doing anything a man could do, the power makers in society – read, white straight males – decided that women needed to “know their place.”

Over the past century women have fought to right this injustice. They have been labelled and smeared by men along the way. And this, as you know, is not new.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know how women do it. I’ve had so many female friends who have been attacked or raped and they don’t bother reporting it, because when they do, they hear the same shit we always hear from these misogynistic pricks.
What was she wearing?

Was she drinking?

Was she asking for it?

I’ve watched a father berate his 12 year old daughter for not cleaning her brother’s room. I’ve coached young girls forced to quit sports because they were responsible for household chores… that didn’t extend to their brothers. I’ve heard countless parents say “boys will be boys” when they misbehave. But when it’s their daughter, they say “this won’t happen again.”

And what this does is teach girls (and women) to embrace invisibility.

I’m not just talking about movie invisibility, or the Bechdel test, but the one that happens in so many homes. The ones where our mothers and sisters and daughters are seen but not seen.

I wasn’t able to name a woman outside of my circles that influenced me, but this past week I spent time with two extraordinary women who were born two thousand years apart. One was a queen. The other was a Hollywood star. Both noted for their beauty, both much more than the stories you may have heard about them, and both of them, despite their fame, were invisible.


Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom, regained it, amassed an empire, and lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, she was an object of speculation and veneration, a living myth in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler, and for a brief moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She died – spectacularly and sensationally – at the age of thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Shakespeare spoke of her infinite variety.

He had no idea.

And yet the enduring impression of Cleopatra two thousand years later, thanks in no part to the lavish 1965 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, is one of a sexy seductress; a beautiful Egyptian siren that lured the two most powerful men of her age into her bed. (Julius Caesar, and later his protégé, Marc Antony)

Considering the number of plays and poems and volumes that have been written about one her, it’s impossible to cover a fingernail’s worth of the complexity of her story in a single essay. There are occasions, however, when even a cursory glance at her life can be helpful. Especially in a culture that prefers simple, binary snapshots of famous figures.

Historically, women have been viewed in only two ways. Madonna. (Virgin, the Mother) Or Whore. (Seductress, Siren)

These are, generally speaking, not only the historical definitions of women, but the way we still tend to categorize them. What’s interesting that most people don’t realize that the gender division in Western culture was largely fostered by the Romans (especially during the Republic), who had very clear roles for men and women in their culture.

Julius Caesar was certainly one of those men. After defeating his rival, the great general Pompeii, Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48 BCE hoping to collect the massive debt Cleopatra’s father had racked up in buying off the inevitable Roman advance. He did not expect to be captivated by a twenty two year old queen. Certainly not one who had been forced to sneak into her own house to avoid her murderous brother and his army. Cleopatra was not just another queen, however, even for the powerful and accomplished genius that was Caesar.

Cleopatra VII was a direct descendant of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and the prodigy of generations of the Ptolemaic Empire. She spoke nine languages, was well versed in military affairs, and even in a time when women rulers were not a rarity, she stood out. She was a charismatic speaker and the first Ptolemy to learn the language of the people she ruled. And yet though little was said of her beauty she is remembered as… a seductress?

(Just a note for that, Egypt was, under the Ptolemies, was one of the few places in the world where women had agency. A woman could get a divorce, for example. This was NOT true in Rome, and it would be something Cleopatra would learn the hard way. )

Under Cleopatra’s rule, Alexandria was by far the most advanced and civilized city in the world. They held fort for the greatest musicians, and the greatest doctors, along with the world’s greatest library. Caesar was so fascinated by her, he not only stayed in Alexandria, but very nearly became trapped when the Alexandrians fought back, upset over the presence of a Roman General who seemed to believe that Egypt was subject to Rome. And yet, months after the Civil War had ended that year, Caesar remained. And there’s little doubt that he stayed because of Cleopatra and shared her bed.

This drew sharp criticisms from Roman historians like Plutarch, who were notoriously misogynistic. They assumed that she seduced Caesar. But as great as Cleopatra was to become, Caesar was one of the most brilliant and powerful rulers in history. A handsome and striking womanizer who we recognize as one of the few humans to change the course of the world. Unlike Caesar, who relied on brains and wit and courage to conquer much of the known world, Cleopatra apparently used her father’s riches and sex (or feminine “wiles”, whatever the hell that is) and has worn the mantle of seductress for over two thousand years. When we discuss Cleopatra, ultimately the discussion revolves around her looks, ironically the most opaque part of what is known about her. We can’t imagine a woman using something OTHER than sex to conquer as a ruler.

When Cleopatra later coupled with Marc Antony, years after Caesar had been assassinated, Roman officers still couldn’t fathom the presence of a woman, even one as accomplished and powerful as Cleopatra, when it came to military matters. They would complain to Antony about her presence in the command tents. And this, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of her ability. Now Rome didn’t have a standing army during the Republic, not yet, and under Antony, it was still basically a collection of farmers.

Can you imagine? Some ignorant and uneducated Roman farmer complaining about the presence of a woman in a command tent?

Can you imagine?

Of course you can. Just go on social media.

Cleopatra died after Antony was defeated by his arch-rival, Octavian, who would go on to become Emperor. As for Antony, he tried to fall on his sword, but failed to kill himself. He lived a few more days. Cleopatra took him into her mausoleum and never came out. Stories very on her death as being on of willing bite by an asp or poison.

And yet the enduring image of Cleopatra conjures two thousand years later is one of a sexy seductress, a bedeviling Egyptian siren who lured the two most powerful men of her time into her bed.


Actress Hedy Lamarr is shown in this 1946 photo. Lamarr, the Austrian-born actress whose exotic glamour and sex appeal sparked a string of hit films of the ’30s and ’40s. (AP Photo)

About two thousand years after Cleopatra’s death, a Jewish girl by the name of Hedwig Eva Marie Keisler was born in Austria- Hungary to well to do parents. Her father was a bank director. Her mother was a pianist.

She pursued acting as a child, working as a script girl and dropped out of school when she was 15. She played parts in two films, and when she 18, she landed the job that would make her famous. The German movie was called Ecstasy. Hedwig played the neglected young wife of an older man. And while it won awards in Europe, the director and producer had duped her, and using a telephoto lens, filmed her partially nude. The film was banned in the US and Germany.

She was devastated by the deception, but a few months later Hedwig met a rich Austrian Arms merchant, Friedrich Mandl, who had ties to Mussolini and Hitler. Her parents, because of their Jewish heritage, strongly disapproved but Hedwig was 18 and headstrong and married him anyway.

Within four years however, she’d had enough. As she said in her biography, “I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own”

So she escaped. Literally. She persuaded Mandl to let her wear all her jewellery to a party, and then fled the country. (Wait, what?!)

Hedwig is now 22, and she arrives in England with her jewels but not much else. There she meets the famous movie mogul, Louis B. Mayer, who is struck by her beauty. After he signs her to a contract, she changes her name and becomes Hedy Lamarr.

For the next 7 years, she makes a number of films and becomes a star, the Angelina Jolie of her time.

It was crazy, in doing the research, how many people, both in print and interview, talked about the affect of her beauty. As in, when they first saw her on screen or walk into a room, there’d be this collective gasp at how incredibly beautiful she was.

But for all of her success, for all her European lady honed manners to make people feel warm, she was different off camera. Very different. She was homesick and lonely, refused to go to parties, and even wondered why people would ask for her autograph.

So in her spare time, she did what she really loved, inventing. Her limited formal schooling didn`t matter. And when she later teamed up with famed eccentric director and inventor Howard Hughes, on the movie sets he would make sure that she had the things she wanted in her trailer to pursue her passion. One writer compared it to a scientist’s lab.

When Hughes was looking to invent the fastest airplane in the world, he consulted Lamarr. As she says in an interview recorded near the end of her life:
“Ì felt the airplanes were too slow. They had square wings. So I combined the pictures of the fastest fish and the fastest birds, and drew that for Howard. He said to me, `you`re brilliant.”

During her peak, Hedy Lamarr was one of the five most famous women in the world, a beautiful Hollywood star. And in her trailer she had a… laboratory?!


Spread Spectrum

Early in WWII, a dragnet of German submarines around England. No ships could pass, in large part because the Germans were jamming the signals of the Allied radio-controlled torpedoes. Lamarr designs a frequency hopping signal and enlists her pianist friend, George Anthell, to help her finish it. The premise is brilliant.

Instead of having a single signal, she designs it so that it “hops” over various frequencies, like a piano piece (which is why she enlisted a pianist to help her). That way, no one signal can ever be jammed.

Lamarr gets a patent for it in 1942 and submits it to the military, but they dismiss it because it comes “from a civilian.” (What are the odds their rejection was probably also based on the fact that she was a) a woman and b) a beautiful Hollywood star. Just more Roman farmers, right?)

In fact, Lamarr heavily contemplates leaving Hollywood to help with the war effort. Instead, they tell her she would be more helpful raising war bonds.

When the war ends, her career begins to fail. She leaves MGM to go out on her own, and has one last big hit in 1949, the Cecile B. Demille epic, Samson and Delilah. But when she opens her own production company in 1950, things get worse. Her movies fail, and she loses millions. Soon enough, the reclusive Lamarr disappears from public view.

In 1962, however, her patent for the frequency hopping signal is updated and adapted by the US military. Frequency hopping is part of what we now call Spread Spectrum, spread through many technologies today, most notable as the basis for Bluetooth and WiFi. But Spread Spectrum is also in a huge amount of technology we use today.

They estimate that her patent would be worth 30 billions dollars today, but Lamarr never sees a dime. As an Austrian immigrant and considered an enemy alien during the war, her work was confiscated, stolen, by the American government. .

For years after she left public view, journalists discounted her ties to spread spectrum.

How could someone without an education design that?

She was just a pretty actress.

She was probably a spy.

They couldn’t fathom a beautiful woman being smarter than them.

Alexandra Dean, who directed the film, Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, said the reason that the scepticism persisted is that Lamar never spoke of her inventions. Never took credit. But in preparation for the film, Dean is introduced to Fleming Meeks, a writer who had interviewed Lamarr and written a piece on her for Forbes in 1990, and still had the tapes of his conversation with her.

Lamarr’s is a sad story of a bright shining star being phased out by those who refused to see all of her, or refused to see her at all.

In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. We remember her for her beauty and stardom, but her legacy is felt every day when we log on to the internet or call our family and friends.

Hedy Lamarr was not a queen like Cleopatra, but whether it`s the command tents with a bunch of Roman farmers or male scientists and journalists who insisted that a movie star could not possibly have invented frequency hopping, the effect is the same.

What both women have done was leave us a monument we should not soon forget; a continual reminder that dividing people by gender, in regards to power and ability and tendencies, is not only ignorant, but exposes the prejudice beneath it. That prejudice is alive and well here in the West, a legacy of the Romans and their historians, and its one we should address, and change accordingly.

-Stephen Burns

NOTE: Ancient Egypt had some of the most egalitarian laws in history. Women had nearly as many rights as men, and they were known for their advancement and culture and education. Following Cleopatra’s death, however, those rights slowly eroded, and when Islam eventually became the religion of the land those rights disappeared altogether. This was clearly in evidence in 2011 during the riots in Egypt, when Egyptian men were caught on video screaming at the protesting women to go back into the kitchen and mind the house, something an ancient Roman would have said.


Some additional Links:

Official Hedy Lamarr Site

Cleopatra. Some Facts.