Women of Power: The Shortest History

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By recounting how women leaders legitimised, wielded and retained power, we might understand how far we’ve come and what a long way we have yet to go.

Through the ages, women have continually sought to establish their place in the political and social landscape, often in the face of considerable opposition. From ancient times to the present day, female rulers have used a variety of tactics to legitimise and monopolise power and, in the process, they helped pave the way for greater female participation in the political arena.

As far back as Ancient Egypt, some female rulers claimed divine right, such as Queen Hatshepsut, who declared herself daughter of the god Amun-Ra. Although Hatshepsut never faced challengers during her lifetime, once her successor, Pharaoh Thutmose III, ascended to the throne, to erase any example of a powerful woman ruler he eradicated almost all evidence of her rule, including regal images of her on temples and monuments.

Information About Queen Hatshepsut | Ancient Egypt Pharaohs

The Tang Dynasty Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, who rose to the highest ranks in the imperial court from the position of a concubine, formed alliances with powerful male allies to gain legitimacy. She married Emperor Gaozong and used her influence to expand her power within the imperial court. Although reportedly violent towards her enemies, Wu challenged Confucian beliefs dictating that female rulers were as unnatural as hens crowing like roosters and relentlessly campaigned to elevate the status of women, enlisting scholars to compile biographies of female luminaries at the time.

Empress Wu Zetian

The European tradition was hardly kinder to women who dared challenge male authority. After all, the Anglo- Saxon word for “queen” never meant “female king” but rather “the wife of a king”, and implied that queens must grovel in submission to their husbands’ will. In the 12th century, the Empress Matilda was one of the earliest female rulers in England. The daughter of Henry I and dowager of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, she led several military attempts to claim the English throne after her father’s death that, in 1141, unravelled into a civil war known as The Anarchy. Although she was forced to concede to her cousin, Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s legacy as a female ruler and leader of an entire kingdom has been remembered throughout the ages.

Empress Matilda

In the 17th century, Russia’s Princess Sophia Alekseyevna encountered similar opposition when she attempted to gain power. She’d been designated heiress to the throne by her father, Tsar Alexis, but her half-brother, Peter the Great, was opposed to the idea. The armed conflict that erupted between them ended in Sophia’s defeat and imprisonment. Since then, this conflict has been framed as a struggle between the bright new “European” Russian Empire (Peter) and the sanctimonious, conservative and backwards-thinking Tsardom of Muscovy (conveniently ignoring the fact that Sophia had the support of some of Russia’s most liberal politicians at the time).

Princess Sophia Alekseyevna

Of course, there are plenty of cases of female rulers who successfully legitimised and retained their power. Elizabeth of Russia (daughter of Peter the Great), for example, was one of the country’s most beloved monarchs because of her refusal to execute a single person during her rule. There’s also the obvious example of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who used gender to her advantage: to broaden her appeal, the Virgin Queen portrayed herself as the nation’s mother. And, of course, monarchs such as Catherine the Great, the Empress Dowager Cixi, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Queen Victoria all come to mind – though even in spite their power and triumphs, all these women suffered discrimination, attacks and malicious rumours because of their gender.

Elizabeth of Russia

The evolution of female power, however, isn’t limited to royalty. The 14th-century Italian-French journalist Christine de Pizan was an ardent advocate for female education and, even then, understood the nuances of gender inequality. In her Book of the City of Ladies, she wrote, “Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did”. In his 16th-century essay, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the Scottish philosopher and theologian John Knox argued that women shouldn’t be allowed to rule, since they were created subject to men, but following the Enlightenment, women began to challenge such notions. British writer, philosopher and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – mother of the novelist Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein – penned the treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves,” she wrote.

Christine de Pizan

Although women no longer need to lead armies to claim what is theirs or weed out their courts to prevent future uprisings, there still aren’t enough women in decision-making roles to consider the road to empowerment even halfway complete. As feminist philosopher Audre Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”



Post source: Prestige Online

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