A history major and then an IR grad student, I wrote a great many papers. Some better than others. As time goes on, I find myself thinking of them. All those pages pieced together late a night or before rehearsal, dozens of books with post-it notes covering my dorm room floor as I sought even the semblance of an original idea. Mentally, or even actually, I find myself referring to words I wrote when all I did was study.
My knowledge has grown since, tempered by experience and practice, but the topics remain interesting to me and shockingly relevant. So in that vein, I am going to start trotting out my old papers. Dusting them off and posting them. I will edit slightly but my goal is to leave the original thesis intact even if, as the case may be, my thinking has changed.
The goal of this is to have a conversation with my former self.
We’ll start with the very first paper I wrote in college for Honors World History I, taught in the fall of 2006 by Dr. Christine Senecal. Hers was the first course in college. Immediately after that Monday morning class, I declared a history major. The paper below was based on sections of a book Dr. Senecal was working on with another history professor at Shippensburg (referred to parenthetically as Women’s Lives), it was eventually published in 2008.
This paper was particularly significant because my professor made an overhead slide of it, blacking my name out, and used it as an example of how to write a good paper. She didn’t tell me beforehand and I think I did a good job not fainting in my seat.
This is paper is also relevant in a contemporary context, as I a woman who at least thinks about politics, and in a tangential way to today’s release of the Aspen Security Forum’s confirmed speakers list which includes three guys name Michael, a Mike, a Matt and not a single woman. In all likelihood, they will get a few women eventually, but if past conferences are any measure such women will be seeded among a sea of men. Meanwhile, women (and men) in the foreign policy & national security space are starting to make noise about how absurd it is that high-profile policy-directing events keep leaving out the ladies if NatSec.
Without further ado, enjoy the first of hopefully many dives back into my own academic history!
Honors World History I
25 October 2006
Pawns versus Queens: Women in Pre-Modern Politics
In pre-modern civilizations politics was an arena reserved for men. The impact of women was very limited, they could contribute in a limited number of acceptable ways. Most women who were connected to pre-modern politics were pawns of their male relatives. However, there are a few women who took atypical roles and whose contributions have survived history. These women were certainly not pawns and some were feared by their contemporaries as strange anomalies. Those who escaped the stigma of a strong political woman did so because they influenced men from behind the scenes. Each pre-modern civilization had its own standard of what a “good” woman was, and none of these standards included being independently political.
The earliest civilizations emerged from the Fertile Crescent. Mesopotamia is the umbrella term for the societies that existed there. Prior to 1000 B.C.E., when cities began to emerge, women had held some important positions. There are Sumerian queens listed on tables from 2500 B.C.E. According to such a list, a Sumerian woman named Ku-Bau became a king and reigned for a hundred years. She is said to have consolidated the foundation of Kish. Later generations characterize Ku-Bau as an “alewife” and blame her reign for the downfall of Kish, which incidentally took place two generations after her rule (Women’s Lives, 16). The changing interpretation of Ku-Bau’s reign is a prime example of how the position of women had declined and how political women shifted from being seen as an oddity to being perceived as a dangerous threat to a civilization.
In Egypt women held higher positions than in most of the ancient world, but even there independently political women were frowned upon. One of the few acceptable ways a woman in the pre-modern world could be involved in politics was as a pawn, primarily through marriage. Marriages constituted alliances and maintained peace. When King Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt he married his children to the royals of the old Lower Kingdom. This was a planned act to symbolize the bringing together of Egypt into one whole. By doing this the unification was not wrought with civil strife, but was celebrated as a new beginning. Even though King Narmer used his girl children as effective political pawns Egypt is the mother of perhaps one of the strongest political women in the ancient world: Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was at one time the lover of want-to-be (now I would use the word aspiring) Emperor Julius Caesar as well as the lover of Mark Antony, the biggest rival of the eventual Emperor Augustus. Not only did she place herself alongside powerful men, she was an heiress to the Egyptian kingdom, holding power in her own right. By allying herself with Antony in a revolt against Augustus she became one of the most powerful, but vilified, figures in her time. Roman writers shift blame of the revolt from Antony, who was well-loved by most Romans, to Cleopatra saying that she was manipulative, turning Antony into a fawning pawn with her beauty and her clever wiles (Women’s Lives, 39). But even her critics could not help but acknowledged that she was an intelligent and charismatic leader. Such a characterization of a strong female leader as a “masculine manipulator” was common (Women’s Lives, 40). It was acceptable for a woman to take the lead but if she did she was somehow less than a real woman.
Classical Athens was one of the strictest societies for woman of the era. Upper class women were sequestered, uneducated, and married at extremely young ages. These factors all added up to the Athenian male view that women were not intellectually capable. The only known influential political woman was Aspasia, a foreigner in the 5th century B.C.E. Socrates is said to have learned the art of rhetoric, for which he is best known, from her. She became the lover of Pericles, a major shaper of Athenian politics. And as with Cleopatra, Aspasia was criticized for exercising too much control over her lover. She was blamed for starting a war and was tried for impiety. Aspasia was an anti-woman in Athenian society because she was a politically powerful foreigner. Athenians hated her as an anomaly. This hatred can be seen today through artifacts such as a lead curse tablet and Athenian plays which characterizing her in a nasty way (Women’s Lives, 25-26).
In Roman society independently political women were also viewed as anomalies. To be both influential politically and respected by society a woman had to work from behind the scenes. She had to appear to “stay in her place.” But Roman society offered more opportunity to women than Athenian society. Younger women received some education; it was a mark of good breeding. And mothers were expected to help educate their children. This is the avenue that Cornelia took to influencing politics. She encouraged her two sons, the Gracchi brothers, in their liberal political endeavors. While she did this away from the spotlight she was well known for her political insight. That King Ptolemy of Egypt asked to marry her was a testament to her diplomatic importance. Cornelia is a perfect example of how women could quietly influence politics through their sons. A more public political role for women was through marriage. Emperor Augustus gave his sister, Octavia, in marriage to his biggest rival, Mark Antony. Roman writers praised Octavia as a “peace-loving contributor” to the alliance between Augustus and Antony (Women’s Lives, 39). A “good” woman in pre-modern civilization was one who stayed in her proverbial place. This often meant being pawns of powerful men as Octavia was, but a clever woman could be like Cornelia and work from behind those with the power to effect the world around them.
In some pre-modern civilizations that practiced polygamy, such as Shang China, a woman who was the first wife held higher status than her husband’s other wives. One such first wife, Fu Hao, apparently “managed large estates of land, supervised rituals, ran military ventures, and even governed her own town” (Women’s Lives, 13). As the first wife of royalty, Fu Hao held a position close to that of an official. It is likely that such women were inclined to do as their husbands wished, as their position could easily be taken from them. Only one woman in Chinese history took a high public role and ruled in her own name. Wu Zhou began as the consort of an Emperor, controlled politics from behind the throne of her husband and sons, and eventually founded her own dynasty. Because Chinese culture had such an aversion to women in power Wu Zhou connected herself to a prophesied female ruler in the Buddhist religion. Thought this connection she could legitimize her right to power. During her reign the bureaucracy became a more effective meritocracy, the empire expanded, and cultural and commercial trade along the Silk Road increased. However, historians of later dynasties recorded her reign as debauched and disastrous. As in the rest of the pre-modern world the only acceptable roles for Chinese women in politics was to legitimize their son’s bloodline and as invaluable pawns “in the Eurasian alliance game” (Women’s Lives, 90).
In India, as in other pre-modern civilizations, women could not usually exert power for themselves but could as the representative of her family or younger sons. Using this method a woman could indirectly influence politics. Examples can be found in the literature of that time. “The Mahabharata … has examples of many women, especially mothers, who went to great lengths to secure positions for their sons” (Women’s Lives, 58). Kunti’s five sons always consulted her before their missions and another literary woman, Shakuntala, traveled extensively to take her son back to his father, the prince, to claim the throne for him. In India, too, women were a way by which a man could legitimize his power. Chandra Gupta I, the founder of the Gupta Empire, gained his power in part due to the fact that he married a Licchavi princess. By marrying such a powerful woman Chandra Gupta’s obscure background could be overlooked.
Were all women in pre-modern politics pawns? Not really. Some women were most certainly pawns of the alliance game, such as Octavia. And others were outrightly independent, like Cleopatra. The cleverest women in pre-modern times influenced politics as Cornelia did; from behind those who were in the best position to make things happen: men. While all women in pre-modern civilizations had less influence on politics than men, there were a select few ways a woman could contribute. Acceptable routes were through marriages of alliance or as the first wife, an extension of her husband. Also, women were important for reasons of inheritance; they could legitimize their son’s claims to elite status. Less common routes to political influence were taken by daring women, who ruled in their own name, as Wu Zhou did in China; or defied authority and manipulated their lovers as Cleopatra and Aspasia did in Rome and Athens respectively. Because there are so few pre-modern women remembered for being political we could say that it was a rarity. Some women were pawns and some were queens and both made contributions to their societies. Those who did make an impact independent of men made such a difference that even after being slandered by their peers and later historians we still know of their accomplishments.