First-century Britannia, in those earliest post-Christ decades: it’s as good a place and time to start as any, if we’re going to talk about women, and we’re going to talk about failure. So let’s leave this chattering world behind. Let’s go back, let’s stand on the cool and rocky British coast at the time when time has just begun (at least according to the Christians).
And let’s watch as Boudica burns it all down, and let’s rethink everything we know about women and failure.
To the ancient Romans, that insatiable empire, the British isles were a green and tribal mystery at the distant edge of the known world. Their goal: render it less mysterious, more profitable. They laid roads and cities upon it. They dropped Latin names across the Celtic landscape.
When a loyal tribal leader named Prasutagus died, the Romans sailed to distant, exotic Britannia to claim what they had decided was theirs: his land, his weapons, his people. After all, without a male leader, everything he left behind was just rotting over there at the edge of the world, right? A shame, a waste. So the Romans disembarked on the British coast—but look at that, they walked right into a woman. Her name was Boudica.
We know her name because she was an aberration: a female who fought, and won (at least for a little while). She said, I’m here. My daughters, too. My husband may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we are leaderless and lost. We’re good. Turn around. Go home.
I don’t think so, lady. Boudica was stripped naked, her flesh flogged by the Romans. Cruel leather screamed into her skin. Then, while she was still bleeding, they raped her daughters. That’ll show her. High-fives over torn female bodies.
What did Boudica say, then? Possibly, she was too broken in that moment for sound. Or, there was only screaming.
With her flesh and her family ravaged, Boudica plunged into revenge: she burned down Colchester, she burned down London, she transformed the cities and their inhabitants into cinder and ash. Boudica inhaled the charred air, hugged her little girls close, muffled their ears against the cries of the dying city dwellers—who, let’s not forget, were just Romans and local Celts trying to make a living. Boudica failed to pinpoint her rage on the guilty, she failed to swing her sword away from the innocent. She is not entirely innocent in all this. Female failure is no clear-cut phenomenon.
Meanwhile, a bunch of Roman men—the ones not killed—galloped away, avoiding eye contact with one another, muttering, Whatever, not worth it. This place sucks. Full of crazy women and those crazy fucking Druids.
As they retreated, they remembered to spit the word on the soil that rejected them, the soil soaked with their own blood:
Tacitus, a Roman historian, insists that before one of these battles, Boudica rode in a chariot in front of her soldiers, and delivered a fine speech, including this line: On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed. Never mind that there is no written record, nothing put down on parchment by Boudica herself.
And really, isn’t that what a man would imagine a woman would say? Guys, trust me, I won’t change my mind, won’t giggle and twirl a strand of my hair around my finger, won’t say, as the Romans march on us, blood on their swords, “God, I don’t know, what do you guys think?
Was this a good idea? Whatever you want to do is fine by me!”
We only have what Tacitus gave us.
There is no alternative.
There is also this depressing denouement: despite her (murderous) victories, the Romans came back. They kept at it. And Boudica did not keep winning. She died. She knew she was done, she knew the Romans were here to stay. Maybe it was poison, maybe it was illness, maybe she placed her sword hilt-up on the ground, pushed rocks around it to hold it upright in place, and let herself fall onto the blade.
Rome ruled Britain for three hundred years.
Boudica got a statue in Westminster.
The daughters? Nobody bothered to write them down. They were cast into bronze beside her, at least.
Nice try, sweetie.
Why did I start with Boudica? There are so many options when it comes to women and failure. Boudica might not have even existed; there is no bone-evidence of her, so perhaps she was created for the sole purpose of falling short, of illustrating the inherent failure of female leadership. Maybe men made her only to demolish her. Let me prop that sword up for you, tilt it a bit more to the right, there you go babe, have at it. Good girl.
But we don’t need to resort to possible myth: there was Joan of Arc, too. Mostly, she’s a body to us now: the short hair, the hand clutching the sword, the girl-form encased in heavy, masculine armor. Another woman armoring herself in maleness, pushing hard against the interloper—here, England. She fought for the French ruler, Charles VII, and won him battles because God told her to, until she didn’t. So the English and their pals put her on trial. They needed her to be a publicly female failure. They came around, again and again, to her male clothing. Her short hair. Her wrong way of being a woman.
As we know, she burned; she failed. But first, she spoke—and we still have her words: the transcripts of her trials are right there in the books, on the Internet, even. After she was captured and put on trial, she talked and talked. She warned the men judging her, fully confident of her place in the sun, of her rightness: You say you are my judge. Take care what you are doing; for in truth I am sent by God, and you place yourself in great danger. She dismissed the earthly realm of courts and human jurisdiction. She was already looking beyond all that when she said, I am come in God’s name; I have nothing to do here; let me be sent back to God, whence I came.
Basically, she failed to kiss ass.
Of course, despite her brave talk, she was chained in a dark cold cell, and then she was burned.
True, Boudica and Joan are lauded for their attempts. Boudica got that statue because she is remembered as a leader, not a loser (which, technically, she was). We always see Joan of Arc in her armor—her male costume—standing before an army, banners fluttering in the breeze.
But both women were aberrations. Women affronted and enraged men by playing dress-up, daring to drape themselves in male costumes, deluding themselves into thinking that women could do what men have always done.
They failed at being women. At least, according to the rules put in place by (obviously) men.
Look, the past is carpeted with failed female bodies. Not only women like Boudica and Joan who failed to be feminine, or who failed to transcend being female, but also, women who failed in distinctly female ways.
We could talk about Eve here, but so many others already have. I’m thinking more about another biblical woman. I’m thinking about Lot’s wife. Not the most obvious choice of a biblical failing woman, I know. But maybe she should be; she failed in so many ways. She failed to follow a single simple command: don’t look back. She failed to retain her name. She failed to retain her life. She failed to be anything more than a cautionary symbol, a warning, and, of course, a wife.
The thing is, who wouldn’t want to look back? Your home is being struck down, demolished, and you are fleeing with only your family and what you can carry. If it’s your home, what’s the harm in a final glance? I know, the lesson here is to look forward, not backward, and follow God’s instructions utterly and completely. That’s her real failure, we’re supposed to say. She failed to follow God’s instruction, and so she was cast into salt. But I think she just failed to be heartless. She failed to turn her back on her home— sinful and ravaged, yes, but still home. Who knows what she did there? Maybe she was a midwife; perhaps she was a pillar of the community before she was a pillar of salt. Perhaps she sewed lovely clothing; perhaps she made up silly little songs and sang them to her children every night. We don’t know, and we never will. We don’t even know her name.
Maybe it’s a sacrilege—yes, definitely, it must be—but I hold her failure in my hand, I close my fingers over it gently. Maybe not a noble failure, but an understandable one, I think. A simply human one: can’t a woman’s failure be universal, applicable to all?
How do we measure the value of a woman who fails? Is it wrong to celebrate the almost-there? When we recognize the effort (it’s a start! a crack in the glass ceiling! so close!), don’t we condescend, just a little (nice try, sweetie)?
No. When a woman fails well, the world shifts, just for a moment, and when it resettles, the landscape has opened, just a bit. The plates have not realigned into the same patterns as before. Now there is loose gravel, brokenness and opportunity, rough where the edges no longer quite meet. Just enough space for a little more air, a little more possibility.
We have been here many times: we imagine that this woman, this time, is different. We imagine she is our savior, in a hot momentary burst of longing. But then she fails, and the historians note the loss, briefly, before moving on.
The woman who ravages; the woman who talks back; the woman who simply wants to go home.
A trash heap of obliterated female bodies, salt on uncaring earth. Nothing grows in burned land, on salted ground. Right?
How many times do we need to reach out and feel victory slide gentle from our grasping hands?
And why do we still rise up and rage, talk back, look back?
We’re still doing it. We’re still failing all the time. Still widening the world across centuries.
Let’s assume there will be many more failing women. Let us try this, too: each time she fails, try not to linger on or obsess over the blood, the ash, the salt. Focus instead on what has been cracked open, the breeze rushing in, cool on your skin.
Kristen Holt-Browning holds an MA in English from University College London. She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two sons, a dog, and two cats, where she works as a freelance editor and proofreader.
A Wish You Must Cultivate