Maureen Quilligan

Maureen Quilligan will read from her new book, "When Women Ruled the World," Oct. 12 at the Burwell School.

In 1984, Maureen Quilligan came up with the title for her book, “When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance in Europe.” More than 35 years later, the book is finished and ready for its official release. 

Writing books is nothing new to Quilligan, who was hired in 2000 to chair the Duke University English Department. She chaired the department for six years, and taught for 10 years after. She’s written several books, mostly with regard to Medieval times and Renaissance Europe. But those were, as she said, written for academics, and Quilligan wanted to tell a different kind of story. 

“I wanted to write a book that people would read,” she said. “Real people would read. And I wanted to be able to give a reading at a bookstore the way others did for the general public.”

And therein lies the lengthy pause between title and content for her book. “I was, I guess, afraid of trying to write for a lay-person audience. (I was afraid) that I didn’t know how to tell a story. I don’t know how to tell a joke, so how can I tell a story,” she quipped.

What moved Quilligan forward with this book was a request from her daughter, who lived in Los Angeles, to pick up her wedding dress from a preservationist in Connecticut. She then wanted the dress placed under her childhood bed, in the house, in the town where she grew up in Connecticut.

Quilligan initially wondered what this was about. And then it dawned on her: an anthropological theory she had used in a book she’d written about Elizabeth l of England explained why her daughter wanted her to carry out this request.

“It was a bolt of lightning to me,” Quilligan said. “I was able to then use this anthropological theory that said women give gifts that will pass down through a family and gain power for the family, and also for the women in that family.” 

Elizabeth l of England, when she was 11-years-old, gave a book to her stepmother, Katherine Parr, as a “thank you” for putting her back into the succession so that she could someday become Queen of England. Elizabeth embroidered the cover for the book, which made it a gift of cloth, a key characteristic of the gifts.

Quilligan’s stories about gift-giving within and among four powerful women in monarchies is key to her effort to set a different tone for how the history is told about the relationships between these royal women, who are often described as being rivals, hating each other, and having little in common.

“History says they had the same kind of contestation and conflicts and wanted to go to war and wanted to kill each other and all sorts of things like that,” Quilligan explained. “Actually, I say, no, they didn’t. They wanted to make peace. They understood that they were, each one of them, up against a really problematic patriarchal moment in history, which was the beginning of the demise of monarchy, and the beginning of democracy. That meant women’s traditional family power for being part of dynasties would go away.”

Quilligan’s “When Women Ruled the World” refolds the material between Mary Tudor, Elizabeth l, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catherine de’ Medici in a way that reveals a sisterhood of sorts, lifting, seeing, and protecting each other. Although their stories were set into motion centuries ago, the power of their gifts are equally relevant today.

Author Maureen Quilligan will read from her book, “When Women Ruled the World: Making the Renaissance In Europe,” Tuesday, October 12 at 5 p.m. at the Burwell School. A wine and cheese reception will follow the reading. The event is sponsored by Purple Crow Books. The Burwell School is at 319 N. Churton St. in Hillsborough. To read more about Quilligan’s book, go to