Ten Mistresses Who Changed History

A gallery of “other women” who became their own women.

Before Monica Lewinsky, Camilla Parker Bowles, or Marilyn Monroe, there was Hagar—the world’s first known mistress. *

According to the Bible, Hagar was an Egyptian slave sent to the bed of her master, Abraham, by his barren wife, Sarah. When Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael—who would become Abraham’s heir—the formerly submissive servant turned haughty and began to treat Abraham’s lawful wife with “contempt.” Sarah punished Hagar for her attitude and sent the slave packing. (An angel of God eventually persuaded a chastened Hagar to return to the couple.) Several years later, after God restored Sarah’s fertility and she gave birth to Isaac, Sarah began, once again, to fiercely resent her husband’s concubine. “Cast out this slave woman with her son!” she demanded of Abraham. In an instant, Hagar was banished a second time. Her lesson: Any power she had ever acquired was ephemeral, contingent on factors beyond her ability to please her lover or bear him a healthy son. The mistress’s pride was no match for the wife’s wrath.

Several millenniums later, the mistress remains a tenuous position, as historian Elizabeth Abbott explores in her new book, Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman, out this week. Since Hagar’s era, however, a handful of women have learned to parlay their scandalous relationships into positions of power—and some have changed history in doing so.

Abbott begins her collection of biographies with an important caveat: Mistressdom hasn’t always been as stigmatized as it is today. That’s because the idea of a romantic marriage is a relatively modern one. Historically, families around the world have arranged marriages primarily for political or economic reasons. Husbands and wives “were not expected to quiver at each other’s touch, to adore one another or to fulfill each other’s emotional needs,” she writes. In those societies, the relationship between a man and his mistress may have been illicit, but it was expected and tolerated—after all, men had to satisfy their uncontrollable sexual urges somehow. Still, while men may have been freer to engage in extramarital relationships, women who attempted the same have nearly always been ostracized and denigrated.

So why did so many women choose to become mistresses—or even seek out the position? In some cases, they were coerced by powerful men. But in others, they cast themselves into lives of indecency because by trading away their respectability, they were able to gain power. Many of the women profiled in Abbott’s book used their cunning and their new social advantages to carve out roles of great influence. Experts at leveraging their erotic capital, these women became political operatives, famous novelists, and empresses. In most cases, their ascendancy was only possible through that strategic, if ignoble, partnership.

“For most mistresses, it wasn’t a romantic thing,” says Abbott in a conversation over the phone. “They understood what they could get out of it.”

Many prominent mistresses also understood something else: that their power was transient, a perishable good. Control, for most mistresses, lasted about as long as their rosy cheeks and slim waists.

The accompanying gallery illuminates the lives of 10 women who used their time wisely. Each won a place in the history books because of their male attachments. But without their own formidable talents and intellects, most would not have been so admired by their lovers in the first place. Beauty, for these seductresses, was only the beginning.

Clarification, Sept. 1, 2011: This article originally referred to Hagar as the world’s first mistress. There were probably mistresses before her, though she is the first known to modern historians. (Return to the revised sentence.)