8 Historic Pregnancies Everyone Was Watching

Wikimedia Commons  // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When you consider that it only took about seven decades to go from public pregnancy talk being taboo to Beyonce’s epic “We’re expecting twins” photoshoot, it’s clear society’s collective obsession with baby bumps has come a long way in a pretty short time. Up until the 1950s, openly acknowledging that a woman was with child (and therefore openly acknowledging her sexuality) was thought to be inappropriate.

Of course, that hasn't stopped nosy citizens and subjects from paying attention to particularly noteworthy pregnancies throughout history. These eight royals, cultural trailblazers, and newsmakers had all eyes on them—and their growing bellies—long before today’s tabloids made celebrity baby watching an art.

1. JANE SEYMOUR // 1537

jane seymour
Public Domain

Henry VIII’s first two wives—Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn—had only successfully given birth to daughters before their husband divorced and executed them, respectively. So, when the King of England married Jane Seymour in 1536 (only days after wife #2’s death), the pressure was on her and her uterus to give her new husband the male heir he so desperately wanted. Seymour conceived seven months later. Despite a seriously poor record of treating his previous wives, Henry was devoted to Seymour during her pregnancy. According to some accounts, when Seymour craved out-of-season quail, Henry had them shipped from Calais, France. Astrologers at the time predicted the bun in the royal oven was a boy. They were right. In October 1537, Seymour delivered Edward VI after days of brutal labor. Henry was thrilled, but the birth had been too much for Seymour. She died of complications soon afterward.

2. LESLEY BROWN // 1978

Lesley Brown and her husband, John, had been trying to get pregnant for nine years before they became the first to ever successfully conceive and carry a baby to term via artificial insemination (and they did it on the first try). The English couple welcomed daughter Louise on July 25, 1978, but they were regulars in the headlines in the nine months leading up to the historic delivery, too. The attention was a bit much for the Browns, a quiet homemaker and railroad employee, to take. People were fascinated—and in some cases, outraged—by the medical breakthrough. "Test tube babies" were thought to be both a promising development for thousands of childless couples and a risky step toward playing God. The Browns’ fame only got bigger after Louise was born. They even had to move to a house with a backyard so Lesley could take her baby outside without reporters tailing them.

3. IFRA HORMIZD // 309 C.E.

Shapur II’s rise to rule the Sasanian Empire—which covered much of the Middle East and parts of central Asia—started before he was even born. First Shapur’s father, Hormizd II, died in 309 C.E., then three older brothers were killed, blinded, or captured by nobles, leaving Hormizd’s unborn child next in line for the throne. Some say Shapur was crowned in utero, with his mother, Ifra, even wearing the crown on her womb. Not all historians buy this legend, though, as they wouldn’t have known the baby was a boy.

4. MARIE ANTOINETTE // 1777

MARIE ANTOINETTE AND HER CHILDREN
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The French queen of “Let them eat cake” fame didn’t exactly have a peaceful road to motherhood. It reportedly took seven years for the young royal and her young husband, Louis XVI, to consummate their marriage, and the fact that they hadn’t produced an heir in that time was a problem for the monarchy. When Marie finally did get pregnant, not only was she expected to deliver a boy, she was also subject to the royal tradition of giving birth in front of a curious crowd of courtiers to ensure no baby swapping or other funny business was happening. In the words of Marie’s first chambermaid Madame Campan, when the time came for the birth, “it was impossible to move about the chamber, which was filled with so motley a crowd that any one might have fancied himself in some place of public amusement. Two Savoyards [people from Savoy] climbed upon the furniture for a better sight of the Queen.” Talk about awkward.

5. LUCILLE BALL // 1952

Due to the aforementioned scandalousness of addressing a pregnancy publicly, it was big news when Lucille Ball and her on-and-off-screen husband Desi Arnaz wanted to write her second real-life pregnancy into the storyline of their sitcom, I Love Lucy. CBS network execs weren’t wild about the idea of including a pregnancy in a show in which the married leads could only be shown in twin beds, but gave the couple the okay provided they didn’t actually use the word “pregnant”—it was considered vulgar at the time. Instead, the episode “Lucy is Enceinte” (“Lucy is Pregnant” in French) used quaint '50s euphemisms for Ball’s condition, like “blessed event.” Audiences loved it and the subsequent episodes following Ball and her character’s pregnancy, and Ball and Arnaz greeted Desi Arnaz Jr. in real life the same day the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” aired with 44 million people watching.

6. QUEEN VICTORIA // 1853

Queen Victoria and her eldest child
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The British Empire’s Queen Victoria was no stranger to her pregnancies drawing the public eye. She was attacked in an assassination attempt while riding in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband Albert in 1840, four months into carrying her first child. Later, she became the first monarch to give birth under the influence of chloroform (she used the stuff with her eighth and ninth babies)—a distinction that helped popularize pain-reducing anesthesia for upper-class women during childbirth.

7. ANNE MORROW // 1930

Famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow’s little bundle of joy was so eagerly anticipated, reporters camped out at the Morrow estate ahead of his arrival and radio stations played songs celebrating the event. As The New York Times described in a 1932 article about Charles Jr., “Perhaps nowhere in the world, at any time in history, had a child been the object of such wide public interest as was the Lindbergh child.” Sadly, the buzz around the baby ultimately turned deadly. When Charles Jr. was 20 months old, he vanished from his second-story crib in a kidnapping that captivated the nation for years. The Lindberghs paid $70,000 in ransom to have their toddler returned to them, but the boy’s remains were found a few months later. The man eventually convicted of “the crime of the century” was arrested in 1934.

8. FRANCES FOLSOM CLEVELAND // 1893

frances folsom cleveland
Library of Congress

There was a bit of a scandal when bachelor president Grover Cleveland proposed to Frances Folsom in 1885—most people had assumed the president would be proposing to Folsom’s widow mother instead. So the 21-year-old First Lady understandably became an instant celebrity and fashion icon when she married. (She was so sought-after at public events, the president was concerned for her safety.) As the first and only First Lady to give birth in the White House, “Frankie”s pregnancies were just as attention-grabbing. Esther Cleveland, the only baby of a president ever born in the White House, arrived in 1893.

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

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