Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Woman in power? Better watch your step.

As I watch the Democratic presidential campaign and realize with increasing dismay that it appears America will not get to cast its votes for or against the first female nominee, I’ve been thinking of how we as a culture, and history by and large, has engaged in a subtle, and, at times, not so subtle character assassination of women in power. Already, media giants proclaim Hillary is damaging the Democratic Party’s unity and should concede defeat; headlines scream she’s “Toast!” and focus on the fact that her male counterparts are beginning to show their testosterone-driven competitiveness and leaving her behind in the dust. Her tenacity to remain focused on the prize and her right to campaign until the Party announces its official nominee is seen as divisive and obstinate; she is the proverbial apple of discord.

In other words, girlfriend is not playing by the rules.

None of this is new, of course. What is it about a powerful woman that freaks us out? History is riddled with tales of ladies who’ve shaped and defied society by asserting their power, and of the men who did everything they could to destroy these women’s credibility – and, in some memorable occasions, their very lives. Such women are deemed rapacious examples of their sex, all for acting pretty much the same as any man in their position would.

Take Cleopatra, for example. She ruled Egypt. By herself. She did away with her enemies and forged alliances with powerful neighbors to protect her kingdom. Then she was crushed by the Romans and allegedly killed herself. Her deeds are heroic; yet her strength, intelligence, and superior capacity (she certainly showed more level-headedness than most of the men around her) have been eroded throughout the ages by posthumous depictions of her as that slinky vamp who used sex as a weapon. Ergo, she was a slut and got what she deserved, never mind that she had more humanity and culture in her little finger than Octavian displayed in his entire imperial career.

Then, there’s Juana la Loca, the subject of my upcoming novel THE LAST QUEEN. She inherited the throne of Castile from her mother Queen Isabella, who was a monarch in her own right, with more power and prestige than her consort, King Ferdinand. Juana, however, was married at the time to Philip of Habsburg and he wanted the throne all to himself. So, he engaged in a hostile takeover and very public, media-driven character assassination of his wife’s ability to rule– and all because she showed mettle and told him to get himself his own kingdom and stay the #*!! away from hers. To this day, Juana has been called la Loca, the mad one. She’s the proverbial histrionic wife because when a woman fights back with everything she’s got, well, she must be crazy, right? Never mind that her husband should never have messed with her business to start with; never mind that successive male generations of her descendants did their utmost to pretend she didn’t exist because they’d stolen her crown— historians still promulgate the posthumous diagnosis that she must have been off her meds.

And we have history’s poster girl for bad behavior: Anne Boleyn. She told an egomaniac of a king, “No, I won’t sleep with you until I get the ring, the castle, and my kids aren't bastards” – the requirements of any well bred princess. She then pushed this king to examine his laws and figure out why he needed to obey a pope when the answer to his dilemma (he was unfortunately married at the time) was within his grasp. In other words, get a good divorce lawyer if you want me. What happens? She gets accused of screwing around on him and they cut off her head. And then she proceeds to accumulate five hundred years of bad press. She’s the home wrecking witch, never mind that she changed the course of English history and showed more acumen, fierce determination, and sheer nerve than Henry himself.

Surely, these women deserve better. While men earn the equivalent of historical gold stars for swaggering about proclaiming their worthiness, consolidating their assets and engaging in occasional acts of rapine, women still labor under the male-propagated ideal that their place is in the home and at the hearth. Cleopatra, Juana and Anne were all good mothers by all accounts; and they kept a spiffy palace, I’ll bet. They also knew how to wield their brains.

At least I know Hillary Clinton is in good company.


Catherine Delors said...

I think you could add Marie-Antoinette to the list of women whose power did not sit well with many. I have come across many comparisons between her and Hillary.

C.W. Gortner said...

Oh, yes. Thanks for mentioning it, Catherine. I was going to add Catherine de Medici, too, as I'm currently writing about her. She also got clobbered by the media of her time and in subsequent eras! It does appear to be a cultural phenomenon that occurs in most historical periods.

C.W. Gortner said...
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