Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Women and Political Power--Or, Some Things Never Change

Hillary Clinton, Matilda of England, and the Crap Women Have to Put Up With


When it comes to women seeking political power, things don't seem to change much.

Critics have pointed out the persistence of the sexist rhetoric swirling around Hillary Clinton and her campaign for the presidency--and of the media's complete disregard of their responsibility for it and their failure to address their complicity in this persistence. Check out ""The Media Have a Hillary Story and They're Sticking to It" (Neil Gabler, 8 April 2016, Moyers & Company) and "Morning Joe Panel Admits Discussing Clinton’s Tone is 'a Gender Thing'--Continues to Do It Anyway" (Scott Eric Kaufman, 12 April 2016, Salon).

In fact, reading stories like these and listening to "reasoned" political commentary on CNN and NPR for the last few weeks, I've been thinking more and more about the Empress Matilda--the twelfth-century woman who was determined to become queen of England. And if the men who had sworn solemn oaths to her father, Henry I, to support Matilda's succession had actually fulfilled those oaths, she would have been the first queen regnant of England. 

A fifteenth-century imagined portrait
of Matilda of England,
the woman who would be queen
I've written about Matilda of England before (to read that post, click here). Born in 1102, Matilda fought to become queen from the time of her father's death, in 1135, until 1154, when her cousin Stephen of Blois, who had seized the English throne in her stead, finally named Matilda's son, Henry, as his heir. Matilda never became queen, but her son became King Henry II of England. Matilda died in 1167.

But going over Matilda's struggle once again isn't my purpose here. Rather, it's the gendered rhetoric surrounding Matilda's pursuit of political power that's interesting to me today.

In the twelfth century, political power--and the pursuit of power--were of course viewed as male. There was no precedent for Matilda in England, but neither was there anything to prevent her from becoming a queen regnant. She was, after all, the only legal heir of her father, and Henry's men had sworn to support her. And her life, first as queen of the Germans and Holy Roman empress, then in a second diplomatic marriage to the count of Anjou, had provided her with ample training in and experience of power politics. So nothing stood in her way--no law, no lack of education and skill. Except, of course, pervasive views about women. 

For a time Matilda was victorious--and in 1141, when she defeated Stephen of Blois and his supporters at the battle of Lincoln, taking him captive, it looked like she might achieve her goal. But that's really when the trouble began. 

Immediately after her victory, the author of the Gesta Stephani (the Deeds of Stephen) said that Matilda refused the request of Stephen's wife (another Matilda, Matilda of Boulogne) to release Stephen by responding with "harsh and insulting language." Even worse, she had promised to reward her supporters with lands that had been Stephen's.

And she didn't always listen to her male advisers--she made up her own mind about what to do. So another charge against her was not "paying attention" to men and "failing" to keep their "good will." Instead, "she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, when [the chief men of the whole kingdom] bowed before her . . . or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with contumely, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer and refusing to hearken to their words; and by this time she no longer relied on their advice, as she should have, and had promised them, but arranged everything as she herself thought fit and according to her own arbitrary will."

As the author of the Gesta Stephanie summarized her "failings," "She at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex." The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon agreed:  “she was lifted up into an insufferable arrogance … and alienated the hearts of almost everyone.”

When Londoners objected to paying taxes Matilda imposed on them (they had supported Stephen), "She, with a grim look, her forehead wrinkled into a frown, every trace of a woman's gentleness removed from her face, blazed into unbearable fury." They'd supported her enemies--she wasn't going to "spare them" from the money she thought they should pay. Those very Londoners drove her from Westminster before she could be crowned.

I wonder if Matilda of England's disdainful face
looked anything like this?
It's hard to imagine her formidable father, Henry I, or her first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, or such English kings as Richard the Lionheart or Henry VIII, weren't equally arrogant and didn't "blaze" into "unbearable fury" once or twice.

But Matilda's behavior didn't conform to ideas about what a woman's behavior should be: she wasn't soft-spoken, gentle, self-effacing, humble, or deferential. 

Arrogant and insufferable or not, Matilda was pragmatic--she ultimately gave up her quest for the throne and passed her claim to her son.

Nearly eight centuries later, the rhetoric about women and political power doesn't seem to have changed all that much. 

AND . . . 


Just as I was finishing this post, health-care activist and Bernie Sanders supporter Paul Song let loose with his own misogynist rhetoric--an attack on Hillary Clinton (thinly veiled? Nah, I don't think so) by referring to "corporate Democratic whores." You might--or might not--enjoy the Twitter shitstorm.

Just a reminder here that queens regnant like Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Stuart were also regularly insulted as whores. It was one of the most frequent attacks made on them. Sigh.

Of course, as I've also noted in this blog, politically powerful women were also regularly accused of incest. Can that be far behind? (Here are links to just a few: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabeau of Bavaria, Margaret Beaufort, Louise of Savoy, Marguerite de Navarre. I won't even begin to note all the Borgias and Medici women similarly discredited.)