Happy Valentine's Day! 6 Power Couples for the Ages

As Valentine’s Day nears, we're taking a look at six couples who have proven that romantic partnerships really can change the world.
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Catherine McHugh
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As Valentine’s Day nears, we're taking a look at six couples who have proven that romantic partnerships really can change the world.

For this Valentine's Day, we are not only feeling the love, but are also delving into how some famous romances and the power of their love have impacted history. 

Antony and Cleopatra

Mark Antony and Cleopatra Photo

Depictions of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. 

In 41 BC, Marcus Antonius of Rome stood at the pinnacle of power, while Cleopatra VII Philopator was the queen of Egypt. Reportedly, the two fell in love at first sight and their affair produced three children. The relationship outraged the Romans and that antagonism grew into civil war. In 31 B.C., Cleopatra joined her Egyptian forces with the Roman forces of Mark Antony and fought Octavian’s forces on the west coast of Greece.

The Roman forces decisively beat them in battle, and the couple barely managed to make it back to Egypt. However, Octavian’s forces pursued them and captured Alexandria. Antony returned to the battlefield, where he was falsely informed that Cleopatra had died. Upon hearing the news, the despondent Roman leader committed suicide by stabbing himself. Cleopatra followed her lover’s demise by ending her life as well by being bitten by an Egyptian cobra on August 12, 30 B.C. The two were buried together, as they had wished

Though it ended tragically, their true love story continues to inspire people today. Shakespeare’s 1607 play Antony and Cleopatra is still staged today. And during the filming of the 1963 film Cleopatra, stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, playing the two lovers, began a very public affair, which caused a great scandal as they were married to others at the time. 

Elizabeth Taylor Gallery: Taylor met and fell in love with Richard Burton on the set of the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra. Both stars were married at the time, an affair that was condemned by the Vatican and yet another explosive personal scandal for Taylor. (Photo: Getty Images)

Elizabeth Taylor fell in love with Richard Burton on the set of the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra. Both stars were married at the time, an affair that was condemned by the Vatican and an explosive personal scandal for Taylor. (Photo: Getty Images)

John and Abigail Adams

John and Abigail Adams Photo

John and Abigail Adams (Paintings: John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Third cousins who knew each other when they were children John Adams and Abigail Smith became reacquainted at a social gathering in 1762. The couple married on October 25, 1764 and went on to have six children. 

Their relationship is well chronicled in the letters they wrote to one another and shows them to be kindred spirits, with shared interests and a common outlook on the world around them. More than 1,000 of these missives have survived to the present day and they provide a unique insight into the early history of the United States. Their flirtatious correspondence during their courtship evolved to reflect a deeper, more abiding relationship, which saw them through their early days in colonial Boston, during the American Revolution, to London and Paris, where they acted as diplomats, to the White House in Washington, D.C., where they were the first to live as President and First Lady. 

After his presidential term ended, the couple retired to their family home in Massachusetts, where they spent the next 17 years together. 

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie Photo

Marie and Pierre Curie in Paris in 1900. (Photo: Vitold Muratov [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

A brilliant student born in Warsaw, Poland Maria Sklodowska traveled to Paris in 1891 to attend the Sorbonne because her native universities did not admit women. While studying physical sciences and mathematics there in 1894, she met Pierre Curie, a noted French physicist and chemist and they quickly became partners in love and science. They were married in 1895. 

Intrigued by physicist Henri Becquerel’s accidental discovery of radioactivity in 1896, Marie Curie began studying uranium rays and Pierre joined her in her research. In 1898, a year after the arrival of their daughter Irène, the Curies discovered polonium—named after Marie’s homeland—and radium. In 1902, they successfully isolated radioactive radium salts from the mineral pitchblende. In 1903, the couple shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel for their groundbreaking work on radioactivity.

In 1904, Marie gave birth to a second daughter and Pierre was appointed to the chair of physics at the Sorbonne. After he was killed in an accident on a Paris street in 1906, a devastated Marie vowed to continue her work. She was appointed to her husband’s seat at the Sorbonne, becoming the university’s first female professor. In 1911, she became the first person to win a second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry. 

Their daughter Irene became a physical chemist and she and her husband Frederic Joliot were awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity. 

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas 

Getrude Stein Alice B. Toklas Photo

Gertrude Stein (pictured in 1934) and Alice B. Toklas (pictured in 1949). (Photos: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas met in Paris in 1906. Both from well-to-do California families, famous writer Gertrude was an Oakland expatriate who ran a literary salon located at 27 rue de Fleurus, while Alice left San Francisco to escape the boredom of waiting on her brothers and father. 

The two were immediately physically attracted to each other and became a striking couple. They were almost mirror opposites in many ways as Stein, a rotund 5'2", wore severe, mannish outfits and styled her hair in a Roman emperor cut whereas Alice was small and thin with large dark eyes and had a propensity for flowing dresses and gypsy earrings. Stein proposed marriage to Alice in 1908 and they spent the rest of lives as a monogamous couple, ruling the avant-garde from their Paris salon. 

When Stein’s love letter novel to Toklas, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, became one of the unlikeliest blockbuster novels of all time, they returned to America for Gertrude’s book tour in 1934—and made the front pages of all the major New York papers. Toklas, described coyly as Stein’s “constant companion,” appeared in all the published photos and they were interviewed together. Yet no one commented on the strangeness of a pair of middle-aged lesbians becoming the media darlings of 1930s America. 

After Stein's death in 1946, Toklas lived alone in the couple's apartment in the Rue Christine, on the Left Bank, which was crammed with paintings and sketches—reportedly 27 by Pablo Picasso, seven by Juan Gris and one by Henri Matisse—collected from the height of their salon days. She clearly pined for her companion and returned to Catholicism before she died, at age 89 in 1967. "Will this allow me," Alice asked her priest, "to see Gertrude when I die?" 

Mildred and Richard Loving

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving Photo

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Loving, a white man, met Mildred Jeter, a family friend who was of African and Native American descent, when both were teenagers, and their relationship quickly blossomed into romance. But they were not radicals who set out to change history or face down racism. They were just two people in love.

In June 1958, the couple drove 80 miles from their native Virginia, where so-called anti-miscegenation laws made interracial unions illegal, to exchange their vows in Washington, D.C. They returned home to Central Point, Virginia, where a few weeks later, police officers burst into the newlyweds’ bedroom and arrested them under the "Racial Integrity Act," a 1924 law forbidding interracial marriage.

The Lovings were sentenced to one year in prison or a 25-year exile from their home state. So the couple relocated to Washington, D.C. where they had three children. In 1963, after five years of sneaking back and forth to visit their families, they contacted U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union. Volunteer lawyers took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision of 1967 unanimously ruled that bans on racial intermarriage in Virginia and 15 other states were unconstitutional.

Preferring to stay at home, the Lovings didn't even attend the oral arguments. When their lawyer, Bernard Cohen, asked Richard whether he had anything to say to the justices, he replied simply: "Tell the court I love my wife, and it's just unfair that I can't live with her in Virginia."

Although such laws officially remained on the books in several states, the Lovings’ landmark victory rendered them effectively unenforceable, which ensured no one else would have to endure the same treatment. Richard died in a car crash in 1975; Mildred remained in the Virginia house he had built for her until her death in 2008. 

Jackie and Rachel Robinson

Rachel and Jackie Robinson Photo

Rachel and Jackie Robinson (Photo: Jackie Robinson Foundation)

In 1941, Rachel Isum’s friend Ray Bartlett introduced her to his friend and fellow football player, Jackie Robinson, at UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall. The couple quickly became engaged, but waited to get married because Rachel wanted to finish college. Meanwhile, Jackie enlisted in the Army and, in 1945, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. He then signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals, the top minor league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers.   

After a five-year courtship, the couple finally tied the knot on February 10, 1946. "We always said we'd get married once Jack got a job," said Rachel in People magazine. "And then one day Branch Rickey (the general manager of the Dodgers) called Jack."

As the first African American to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947, Robinson's Major League debut marked a key step in helping to pave the way for the Civil Rights movement. Rachel believes their long courtship allowed them to really trust each other and helped them weather the constant abuse and prejudice they suffered—which included death threats to them both. “There was such an incredible amount of pressure; it might have driven two people apart," she said in an interview in Sports Illustrated. "But it pushed us together."

At home in Stamford, Connecticut, the pair focused on insulating their three children, Jackie Jr., Sharon and David, from the chaos. Rachel had a successful career as a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a director of nursing for a mental health center and an assistant professor at the Yale School of Nursing. After retiring from baseball, Jackie became a successful business executive, and worked extensively with the NAACP.

Following his untimely death in 1972 from a heart attack at the age of 53, Rachel was determined to ensure that her husband’s legacy of courage and dignity lived on, so she created the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has given numerous scholarships to minority youth.