Women and Power, Part One

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

Power has long been a theme in the study of women’s and gender histories of the Middle Ages, owing to its development out of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. It has been returned to cyclically in the 1980s, the 1990s, the early 2000s, and is a current thread of research, which partly owes to the political climate of the early twenty-first century and the rise of far-right groups in the US and the UK. Investigations into women’s power have resonance in the age of the #MeToo movement and the Trump administration, particularly with his Supreme Court nominees, which have raised alarm over whether Roe v. Wade could be overturned. The current cultural and political climate has reignited debates about women’s consent, women’s autonomy over their bodies, and women’s place in politics both in the present day and the historical past.

In her 2017 (revised edition 2018) publication of two lectures given in 2014 and 2017 respectively, Mary Beard queried the continued cultural mentalities that make it difficult to uncover or recognize women’s power, be it in the context of contemporary geo-politics in the ancient world. She asked

How have we learned to look at those women who exercised power, or who try to? What are the cultural underpinnings of misogyny in politics or the workplace, and its forms (what kind of misogyny, aimed at what or whom, using what words or images and with what effects?) How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads exclude women? (p. 52).

Our cultural vocabulary and mentality excludes women from notions of power. As Beard went on to argue ‘we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man’ (p. 54). Indeed, one of the difficulties we have in assessing powerful women in the Middle Ages comes down to issues of terminology. Viriliter, has long been a particularly difficult term to parse. With its meaning ranging from ‘manly’ to ‘courageous’ the question continues to be asked, are these women transgressing their gender when described as such, or is simply an issue of classification? We might also trace the difficulties in categorizing powerful women in current scholarship. Indeed, we refer to it as ‘female lordship’ rather than ‘ladyship’ to convey an equivalency between the power exercised by medieval men and women. While arguments have been made that terminology of elite power and designations, such as domina and dominus carried the same legitimacy in the medieval mind, the fact of the matter is, much of the study of women and power has attempted to show that women exercised power like men, because men are assumed powerful, but for women we have to prove it. Beard’s analysis posited a longue durée of women and power. As one reviewer, Rebecca Mead, suggested, Beard proved ‘#MeToo has been #ThemToo for millenia’.

Medieval #girlboss and ‘manly’ woman Black Agnes defending her castle (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

There are, certainly, worrying continuities between the past and present for women in politics. ‘Lock her up’ became a chant of supporters of Donald Trump during the 2016 American Presidential Campaign, who deemed Hilary Clinton a ‘traitor’ worthy of imprisonment. In September 2018, it was announced that the State Board of Education in Texas had voted to remove several historical figures from its curriculum in order to ‘streamline’ its material for public school education. Among these individuals was Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller. The patriarchal erasure of powerful women is persistent. Also worrying is the patriarchal political apparatus insisting that we should accept the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she too is a woman. Personally, I cannot read an article about ACB without thinking of Judith Bennett’s 2006 arguments about ‘colluders of patriarchy’ in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. We are allowed to be discerning in who we choose as our #feministicons or #girlbosses  and we certainly don’t have to accept what Trump and the GOP present to us as female empowerment.

There have been some positives (if that’s the right word) too. The phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’, a theory that suggests women only assume leadership positions in business or politics at times of crisis, has also undermined women’s power until recently. The Covid-19 crisis has showcased the capabilities of women in leadership positions, with the responses to the pandemic led by Jacinda Ardern and other women showing a better handling of the crisis than the hyper-masculine governments of Westminister or the White House. The notion of the ‘glass cliff’ arose as a way of justifying not putting women in positions of power by setting them up to fail, so to speak, by inheriting a company or country when it was already in distress. However, the global pandemic has shown what most women already know to be true: not only are we good in a crisis, a woman’s approach to handling difficult circumstances can be better than that of the toxically masculine alternatives. I can’t help but hope that the change that we are yearning for as a global community in 2020 brings about more women in positions of power to shape a different future for us.

The intention of this blog post, and the next few to follow, is to provide you, dear Reader, with a sample of what you might come to expect with this blog. I intend to do a multi-part series on women and power, drawing on the work I did during my PhD on the topic to explore themes on consent, vulnerability, and resilience. This discussion is merely a primer for the current debates that shaped and influenced my work on late medieval Scotland as well as my contribution to the field of women’s and gender history.

All references to Mary Beard come from Women and Power: A Manifesto (London, 2017).

Reading list

Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, 2017).

Judith Bennett, History Matters: History and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Rebecca Mead, ‘The Millennia of #MeToo in Mary Beard’s “Women & Power”’ The New Yorker, 26 December 2017 [http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-millennia-of-metoo-in-mary-beards-women-and-power].

David A. Graham, ‘“Lock Her Up”: How Hilary Hatred is Unifying Republicans’ The Atlantic 20 July 2016 [http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/lock-her-up-hillary-clinton/492173].

Doug Stanglin, ‘Texas board votes to drop Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller from history curriculum’ USA Today, 15 Sept 2018, [https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/09/15/texas-board-drops-hillary-clinton-mandated-history-curriculum/1316956002/].

Charlotte Brook, ‘When Women Take Charge’ Harper’s Bazaar, September 2020.

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