11 of History's Most Notable Mothers-in-Law
It’s said that Aboriginal men have a strict policy when it comes to their mothers-in-law: They don’t look directly at them or address them in any way. It’s a tradition that has roots in the culture’s earliest days and probably has done more to ease familial tensions than any in history.
Of course, most families don't have any such traditions in place, leading to several instances of historical figures who have been influenced—or browbeaten—by their in-laws. Here are 11 examples.
1. SARA ROOSEVELT
Upon hearing her son—and future president—Franklin wanted to marry Eleanor, Sara Roosevelt tried to convince him to break it off. When that didn’t work, she coerced him into keeping it a secret for a year. Sara had a hand in every facet of his life, even ordering construction of a double townhouse after the wedding so that Franklin and Eleanor could live on one side and she could live on the other. Eleanor and Sara were often at odds, including how best to move forward after Franklin’s diagnosis of polio. When Sara died in 1941, Eleanor wrote that it was hard to have known someone for 36 years yet "feel no deep affection or sense of loss."
2. SOPHIE OF BAVARIA
Born in 1837, Sisi Wittelsbach became an empress by marrying Franz Joseph, a seeming promotion in life quality—were it not for her mother-in-law, Sophie. The Archduchess was also Sisi’s aunt and campaigned for her son to marry Sisi’s sister, Helene, instead. When that failed, she made a habit of correcting Sisi’s every move, including how best to mother her own children. Even her own son, Franz, was too laid-back for her liking; Sophie has become known as the "only man in Hofburg."
3. MARIE WOOLF
Welcoming the famed writer Virginia Woolf into her fold was something Marie Woolf had no reservations about, but the same wasn’t necessarily true of her new daughter-in-law. Although Marie admired Virginia's intelligence and considered her her favorite in-law, Virginia perceived Marie’s presence as a reminder of her own tumultuous upbringing that was marked by possessive relatives. "I felt the horror of family life, and the terrible threat to one’s liberty that I used to feel with father," she once wrote in her diary. "To be attached to her as daughter would be so cruel a fate that I can think of nothing worse."
4. MARIA CLEMM
Awkwardly, Clemm was both writer Edgar Allan Poe’s aunt and his mother-in-law: the shift in relations came when Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. (Poe was 27.) While Poe and Clemm were believed to have largely gotten along, she did create friction between her nephew and a friend of his named William Duane. Poe had borrowed a book belonging to Duane that Clemm subsequently sold, forcing Duane to track it down through third-party sellers. With the Poe clan unapologetic, Duane never spoke to them again. Following Poe’s death, Clemm reportedly burned a bunch of valuable correspondence that belonged to him.
5. BONA SFORZA
A woman of considerable influence in 16th century Poland and Lithuania, Bona Sforza prompted many of her son’s associates to tread lightly. When Sigismund II, the heir to the Polish throne, married Elizabeth of Austria, Sforza made her disdain for the bride known—and Elizabeth died two years later. Sigismund’s second wife also became ill and died a short time after exchanging vows. Although it's unlikely she had anything to do with the deaths of her daughters-in-law, Sigismund eventually grew very wary of his mother and saw her off to Warsaw, where she could presumably no longer interfere with his romantic relations.
6. CATHERINE DE MEDICI
When Mary, Queen of Scots was just 5, she was sent to live in France with her newly betrothed, the 4-year-old dauphin. Though her future mother-in-law, Queen of France Catherine de Medici, wasn't overly warm towards her, Mary was a court favorite and loved her time in France. However, just two years after her wedding at Notre Dame, an 18-year-old Mary, who had only been Queen Consort for 17 months, was widowed and subsequently shipped back to Scotland by Catherine. And despite accusations of murdering her second husband, Mary, Queen of Scots garnered a better reputation over the years than her former mother-in-law. The Medici matriarch had little use for human nuisances, being implicated in the killing of courtiers and orchestrating the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre that helped to suffocate the idea of Protestantism in France.
7. DOWAGER CIXI
Born in 1835, Dowager Cixi kept a firm grasp in China’s Qing Dynasty for half a century. For some time, her influence was directed through her son, Tongzhi, who became Emperor at the age of 5. When he married Xiaozhe 11 years later, an irritated Cixi guaranteed she would remain his primary influence by allegedly encouraging Tongzhi to keep concubines. Soon after Tongzhi died of smallpox (which is rumored to have actually been syphilis), Xiaozhe and her unborn son also passed away under suspicious circumstances—The New York Times reported at the time that "the circumstances of her death have aroused general suspicion … and there is but little attempt to conceal the belief that the fear of complications in case her expected child should be a son led to the sacrifice of her life." Without an heir, Cixi was able to retain her influence, leading some to speculate she had been responsible for their deaths.
8. ROSE KENNEDY
As the matriarch of the most famous political family in American history, Rose Kennedy was perceived a model of behavior for the women who married her sons. According to Jackie Kennedy, Rose did not fit the stereotype of the overbearing scold: She offered advice when asked but refused to burden Jackie with demands. After the assassination of JFK and Rose's husband Joe Kennedy’s stroke, Jackie said it was her relationship with Rose that helped keep her a symbol of strength while her grief was under a microscope.
9. YVONNE MACNAMARA
The discovery of a work-in-progress notebook once owned by acclaimed poet Dylan Thomas in 2014 shed some light on his relationship with mother-in-law Yvonne Macnamara. After marrying Caitlin Macnamara, Thomas was apparently under significant duress when in Yvonne's presence. He wrote: "I sit and hate my mother-in-law, glowering at her from corners." Her house, he said, "levels the intelligence." Adding credence to his opinion, it was considered a minor miracle his notebook was found at all: After finding it, Yvonne had ordered a servant to burn it.
10. MADGE GATES WALLACE
Following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman became President of the United States in 1945—and promptly equipped the White House with another domineering mother-in-law. Madge Gates Wallace, the mother of Truman’s wife, Bess, apparently didn’t hold the office in high regard, believing that her daughter was still too good for the most powerful man in the free world. When Truman ran opposite Thomas Dewey in 1948, Wallace told Truman she admired Dewey greatly.
11. PRINCESS ALICE OF BATTENBERG
Despite having been a royal her whole life (she was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and was married into the Greek royal family), Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, had little use for the pageantry that surrounded regality. She gave some of her jewels to be set into the engagement ring when Philip was betrothed to Princess Elizabeth, but when her daughter-in-law was crowned Queen in 1953, Alice attended the Westminster Abbey coronation wearing a wimple and habit. Alice largely stayed out of their business, rejecting their lavish bubble and devoting herself to helping the poor in Greece (for her earlier role in saving a Jewish family during World War II, she was declared one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," a high honor given by Israel to those who risked their own lives to save Jews during the war), and she even founded her own religious order of nuns before settling in with her family at Buckingham Palace for two years prior to her death in 1969.