Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth

Natasha sheldon - September 16, 2017

Childbirth has always been a risky business. Despite advances in medicine, it is the sixth most common cause of death amongst young women in the United States. For every 100,000 live births, 15 mothers lose their lives, either during pregnancy, birth or its aftermath. The current death rate is at least an improvement from the past. Only one hundred years ago, 600 women died for every 100,000 births. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, at least 1200 mothers perished. In the centuries before, yet more women must have lost their lives from excessive bleeding, infections, puerperal fever and the trauma of a complicated birth.

These risks were universal, applying to rich and poor, high and low alike. But in addition to Queens and peasants, many remarkable women have lost their lives bringing their children into the world. These women were influential and talented scientists, writers, artists, philosophers, revolutionaries, politicians, and peacemakers. They all would have lived much longer if they had not lost their lives giving birth. Here are just eight of them.

Julia, Caesar’s Daughter

While she lived, Caesar’s daughter, Julia, played a crucial role in preserving the peace of the late Roman republic. Born around 76BC, she was Caesar’s only child by his first wife, Cornelia and the future dictator’s only legitimate child from any of his three marriages. Caesar briefly betrothed the young Julia to a Quintus Servilius Caepio, who became known as Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus to differentiate him from the uncle who adopted him. This Brutus may be the same Quintus Caepio Brutus involved in the assassination of Caesar in 44BC.

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Julia, The daughter of Julius Caesar. Google Images

However, this marriage never took place. Instead, in 59BC, Caesar married Julia to Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or Pompey the Great, a prominent military and political leader and one of her father’s major rivals. The marriage between the 17-year-old Julia and 47-year-old Pompey was a political one, designed to seal the bonds of the partnership between Caesar and Pompey and the wealthiest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus, who together formed the first triumvirate.

Despite the disparity in their ages, Julia and Pompey appeared to regard each other with affection-even love. When Julia was pregnant in 55BC, Pompey became caught in a riot during the election of the aediles. Although unhurt, his toga became splattered in blood, so he sent a slave to exchange it for a fresh one. When Julia saw the blood, she believed her husband murdered and was so distressed she miscarried her child. This tragedy weakened Julia’s health but is a testament to the feelings between the couple- feelings that could only have helped strengthen the alliance of Caesar and his son-in-law.

It wasn’t to last. The miscarriage had weakened Julia’s health, and although she carried her next child full term, the labor killed her. Pompey was reputedly distraught. However, Rome’s peace died with Julia. Before her death, there were emerging strains on the triumvirate caused by tensions between Pompey and Crassus and Pompey’s jealousy of Caesar’s success. Julia’s death removed the final bond between Caesar and Pompey. In 49BC, the two went head to head in a civil war which ended the Roman Republic. Perhaps history would have taken a different turn if Julia had lived.

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Portrait of Eudoxia. Google Images

Aelia Eudoxia

Aelia Eudoxia was the daughter of Flavius Bauti, a Roman military commander of Frankish descent. After the death of her parents in 388 AD, the young Eudoxia was sent to live in Constantinople with Promotus, a military commander who knew her father. It was here that Eudoxia might have first met her future husband. Promotus’s sons were associates of Emperor Theodosius’s sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius had been reigning in partnership with his father since 383 AD. However, in 394 AD, Theodosius split the Roman Empire into east and west.

Honorius was given the west to rule while Arcadius remained in Constantinople with their father. The following year, Theodosius died, and Arcadius became sole Emperor of the east. Immediately, court officials began vying for supremacy, by putting forward potential brides for the Emperor. Rufinius, the head of the praetorians suggested his daughter. However, Eutropius, a court Eunuch won the day by suggesting Eudoxia as a bride. Eudoxia’s looks alone had impressed Arcadius. So in 395 AD, they married.

If Eutropius believed he could rule via the empress, he was mistaken. Within four years, he was dead, executed at the behest of Eudoxia. The Empress now had sole control of Arcadius, who relied upon and held his wife in high esteem. In January 400AD, Arcadius bestowed upon Eudoxia the title ‘Augusta’ the highest badge of honor for an Imperial woman. He also renamed the town of Selymbria after her. Eudoxia’s image, styled after a male emperor, began to appear on coins. Some even made their way to the court of her brother-in-law, much to his dismay!

Eudoxia wielded real power. She controlled the courts and would manipulate the outcome of cases- for a price. She even influenced the church, often acting independently of Arcadius. She supported the introduction of the Nicene Creed and financed the persecution of heretical groups. Her power won the ire of church reformer John Chrysostom who publicly criticized the Empress. Eudoxia had him exiled twice because of this.

During the nine years of her marriage, Eudoxia became pregnant seven times. Her first five children, one of who was the future emperor Theodosius II all lived. But in 403 and 404 AD she suffered a miscarriage and then a stillbirth. It was the stillbirth that killed her as Eudoxia suffered first blood loss and then an infection. She died on October 6, 404AD.

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Mary Wollstonecraft. Google Images

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft’s formed her feminist principles at an early age. Her father had ruined their comfortably off family and beat Mary’s mother when he was drunk. The teenage Mary took to lying outside her mother’s door in an attempt to protect her. And so began a life of challenging the social norms. After a brief stint as a ladies companion, teacher and a governess, Wollstonecraft settled upon writing as her career of choice- even though few eighteenth-century women had any success as authors.

Wollstonecraft’s first book, “Original Stories from Real life was her one and only children’s book. From then on, she confined herself political philosophy. In 1790, in response to British outrage against the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft wrote “Vindication of the Rights of Man.” She argued that the revolution, no matter how bloody, arose from real economic and social problems rather than baseless violence. She followed up the book with her most famous work “Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ” a book which called for girls to have the same rights to an education as boys.

Wollstonecraft’s first relationship was with a married artist, Henry Fuseli. The second was with Gilbert Imlay, an American she met in revolutionary France. The couple had a daughter, Fanny but they never married. Imlay did, however, pass Wollstoncraft off as his wife to protect her from execution during the Reign of Terror. He later left Wollstonecraft, prompting her to attempt suicide. It was just after her recovery she fell in love with William Godwin who claimed she won his heart through her ‘Letters written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark”. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness,” said Godwin,” at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.”

The couple married when Wollstonecraft became pregnant but maintained two adjoining properties so they could enjoy their independence. On August 30, 1797, the future Mary Shelley arrived. It was a standard birth-but the placenta ruptured, and Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever on September 10. She left behind several unfinished manuscripts and a distraught Godwin who wrote“I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.”

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Emilie Du Chatelet by Latour. Google Images

Emilie Du Chatelet

Emilie du Chatelet was an eighteenth-century physicist, mathematician and philosopher. Born into the minor nobility, Emilie owed the development of her intellect to the liberal attitude of her father, Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil. De Breteuil was already running a weekly salon for writers and scientists. He recognized his ten-year-old daughter had a brilliant mind. So he arranged for the secretary of the Academie des Sciences to visit her to discuss astronomy. By the age of twelve, Emilie was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German, and a prodigious mathematician. She even devised a series of successful gambling strategies so she could win money to buy books.

Emilie’s mother wanted to send her to a convent to cure her of her strange ways. She managed to escape this fate. However, one fate she could not avoid was marriage. At eighteen, she married the Marquis Florent-Clause du Chastellet Lomont. It looked like her brilliant career was over. But in 1733, after the couple had three children, Emilie returned to her studies. She was 26. With her husband’s consent, she withdrew to her house at Cirey Sur Blaise to dedicate her time to maths and physics.

Emilie’s heydey had begun. She put forward theories on kinetic and total energy that the scientific community received with respect and wrote her treatise the “Foundations of Physics”. After losing a huge amount of money at cards, she developed the earliest form of financial derivatives, paying tax collectors a small sum for the rights to their future earnings, which she, in turn, she promised to her creditors. In between, she wrote discourses on feminine happiness, a critical analysis of the Bible and works on optics and free will.

In 1749, she translated French Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia into French. Emilie’s translation remains the authoritative French edition to this day. It was to be her last major achievement. In 1748, she began an affair with the poet Jean Francois de Sant Lambert. The 43-year-old Emile became pregnant, a condition that caused her anxiety, as she confided in friends, that she did not think she would survive the birth. She was correct. On September 3, 1749, Emilie gave birth to her final child, Stanislas Adelaide Du Chatelet– and died of a pulmonary embolism a week later.

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Mumtaz Mahal. Google Images

Mumtaz Mahal

Mumtaz Mahal was born Arjurnand Banu, on April 27, 1593. She was the daughter of a noble Persian noble family, who had helped govern the Mughal Empire for generations. The young Arjurnand’s father, Abu’l-Hasan Asaf Khan, was a high official in Agra. Arjurnand had an excellent education. She was cultured, could speak Arabic and Persian- and wrote poetry in both languages. A good marriage was assured for her- doubly so because her aunt was the wife of the then Mughal Emperor, Jahangir.

At the age of 13 in 1607, Arjurnand’s family betrothed her to Jahangir’s favorite son and heir, Prince Khurram. The couple married in 1612, by which time Khurram had already taken a first wife. However, Arjurnand was already first in her husband’s affections. He renamed her “Mumtaz Mahal” ‘the exhaulted of the palace’. Khurram later took a third wife, but according to the court chronicler Motamid Khan, these two other marriages “had nothing more than the status of marriage”, a fact that certainly seems to have been the case as they only produced one child each, whereas the union with Mumtaz produced 14!

In 1628, Prince Khurram became Emperor and took on the title ‘Shah Jahan.” Mumtaz also acquired the titles Malika-I-Jahan’ (queen of the world) and ‘Malika -uz-Zamani’ (queen of the age). Jahan also named her his chief consort and Empress. He decorated Mumtaz’s residence in the Agra Fort in gold and precious stones and installed rose water fountains, as well as awarding her the highest ever allowance on record. However, Mumtaz Mahal was no pampered favorite. Her husband valued her counsel. He consulted her on affairs of state and allowed her the imperial seal to validate decrees.

Mumtaz also accompanied her husband on military campaigns. In June 1631, the couple was on a campaign on the Deccan plateau when Mumtaz went into labor with her fourteenth child. The 38-year-old empress did not survive the birth. The distraught Shah had her body buried in a pleasure garden at Burnhanour. He then went into mourning for a year. In the meantime, he ordered his son to return Mumtaz’s body to Agra in a golden casket and interred her in a small building on the banks of the Yamuna river. The Shah then set about constructing the mausoleum and funerary gardens of his beloved wife-the Taj Mahal– a venture that took 22 years to complete.

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Raden Adjeng Kartini. Google Images

Raden Adjeng Kartini

Born on April 21, 1879, Raden Adjeng Kartini was the fifth child and eldest daughter of an aristocratic Javanese family in the Dutch East Indies. Her father was Regency Chief of Jepara. Although already married to Raden’s mother, the would-be Regent was required to marry his predecessor’s daughter to acquire the necessary social standing to ascend to his position. Polygamy was a practice that his daughter would later decry.

Raden’s family was noted for its intellectuals and linguists. However, no woman of the household was expected to follow this tradition. Raden was allowed to attend school until she was 12. During this time, she learned Dutch (which was virtually unheard of amongst Indonesian women of the period). Then, despite her abilities, she went into seclusion. This separation was a common practice for girls of her class before they married. Raden was not supposed to leave the house- although her father did allow her to attend public events.

Raden stayed in seclusion for twelve years. During this time, she set about educating herself. She subscribed to Dutch books and magazines and as a consequence exposed herself to new ideas -including the beginnings of western feminist thinking. Raden began to consider how her society could apply these new ideas to the lives of Indonesian women and her belief in women’s education began to grow. She began to correspond with Dutch women and submit letters to the magazines she read. After her death, these compiled into three books: Out of Darkness to Light, Women’s Life in the Village and Letters of a Javanese Princess.

Although there was some talk of Raden’s father allowing her to train as a teacher, this ambition came to nothing when she married at 24, to the Regency chief of Rembang. Raden became the leader’s third wife. However, she found her new husband remarkably receptive to her idea of expanding women’s horizons and rights. He allowed Raden to set up a woman’s school in the east porch of his offices and finally, she began to follow her vocation in life.

However, her work was cut short. On September 13, 1904, Raden gave birth to her first and only child, a son. She died several days later from complications with the birth. Her legacy, however, flourished. A Dutch family, the Van Deventer’s, inspired by her beliefs set up a series of ‘Kartini’ schools to educate girls. These schools began to spread across Indonesia and today, Indonesians celebrate Raden Kartini’s birthday as a national holiday known as ‘Kartini day.”

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Lucrezia Borgia. Google Images

Lucrezia Borgia

Most people do not view Lucrezia Borgia as a remarkable woman in a positive sense. Instead, they recall her as a poisoner, and for her mooted incestuous affairs, but this reputation is unjust. Little evidence exists of Lucrezia’s life of crime, save in the smear campaigns of Borgia’s enemies. Plenty of evidence exists, however, to suggest that Lucrezia Borgia was the most politically able of Pope Alexander VI’s children.

Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, the daughter Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. Adriana Orsini de Milan, a close confidant of the Cardinal, educated Lucrezia. Lucrezia became fluent in Italian, Spanish, Catalan, French, Latin and Greek. Orsini designed her education practically: “Above all be sure you have something to say, and then express yourself with simplicity and frankness, avoiding affected words, “ she told Lucrezia. “I want you to learn how to think, not how to produce brilliant sentences.”

Once Cardinal Borgia became Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia became a highly marriageable political pawn. She was first married to Giovanni Sforza until her father annulled the marriage on the basis of its non-consummation. In reality, the Sforza’s had lost their use as allies. She then married Alfonso of Aragon, an illegitimate son of the king of Naples in a bid to extend Borgia interests into the great Kingdom. Finally, she became Duchess of Ferrara when she married Alfonso D’Este.

Lucrezia Borgia was not simply a wife. During her second marriage, she helped her father with the governance of the Vatican. The Pope even left her in charge of official duties when he was away. He also appointed Lucrezia as governor of Spoleto. Once she was Duchess of Ferrara, Lucrezia gathered about her a Court of Culture consisting of some of the most prestigious talents of the Renaissance. The people of Ferrara held their Duchess in high esteem. As well as managing her husband’s business affairs and her own, Lucrezia drained marsh for farmland and built hospitals and convents for the people of Ferrara.

Lucrezia had a long history of miscarriages, and her pregnancies were frequently complicated. On 14 June 1519, aged 39, she gave birth to her tenth child, a sickly baby girl immediately baptized as Isabella. The birth had weakened Lucrezia, and she became ill. Although she seemed to improve after two days, she then began to decline and died on June 24, 1519. Her husband Alfonso, although not always faithful was said to have wept and mourned the loss of his ‘sweet companion.”

Peacemakers and Philosophers: 8 Remarkable Women Who Died in Childbirth
Gianna Beretta Molla. Google Images

Gianna Beretta Molla

Gianna Molla was a gynecologist, mother and a devout Roman Catholic who believed passionately in the tenets of the church- so much so that she gave her life so that her unborn child could live. Born on October 4, 1922, Gianna came from a devout Catholic family. At least one of her brothers became a priest. However, Gianna opted to express her faith in a secular context by becoming a doctor.

In 1942, she began her medical studies in Milan and received her diploma in 1949. By this time, Gianna had already decided to specialize in gynecology. She also hoped to join her brother in his missionary work in Brazil, but her health was too poor. So Gianna stayed in Milan. In 1952, she began to specialize in pediatrics, helping many disadvantaged mothers- always, however, keeping in line with Catholic teachings.

In 1955, she married Pietro Molla, an engineer. The couple had three children without any complications. However, during Gianna’s fourth pregnancy, a fibroma was discovered in her uterus. She had three options: abort her child and have the fibroma removed, have a hysterectomy which would have killed the baby but was allowed under church law as the loss of infant life was a consequence of medical treatment, or have the baby and then have the fibroma removed. Gianna took this last option. On April 21, 1963, doctors delivered her daughter Gianna Emanuela by C-section. But Gianna Molla died of septic peritonitis a week later.

In the 1970s, the Bishop of Milan began to make a case for Molla’s sainthood. She was Beautified in 1994 after the church investigated claims that a Brazilian woman was cured of rectal, vaginal fistula after nurses prayed to Gianna for aid. The church allowed her sainthood in 2003 after a second Brazilian woman, Elizabeth Comparini, tore her placenta when she was sixteen weeks pregnant. She also appealed to Gianna and, despite the damage, delivered a healthy child. Pope John Paul II canonized Gianna’s in 2004. Gianna’s husband and children witnessed the event – the first time a spouse had ever seen his wife elevated to sainthood.