Women of Power #
Angela Saini, in The Patriarchs: How Men Came To Rule presents sound evidence that there have been many times throughout human history when females shared power equally with men fostering peaceful, prosperous and equalitarian societies.
Patriarchy is defined as the control of younger men and women by older ones.
Matrilineal societies existed in ancient Sumer, Crete, Egypt, Greece and Türkiye. Societies work best when power and responsibilities are shared equally. Any imbalance can prove detrimental to society.
A femme fatale is an “irresistibly attractive woman who leads men to their downfall.” The archetype of dangerously sexy women (Coquettes, Sirens exist as stock characters in most literature.
To discredit powerful women, they were often accused of sorcery or witchcraft.
Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures illustrated goddesses enjoying more equal status with gods. Goddesses procreated with mortal males while in Greek theogony gods with mortal females.
Women and vengeance proved a popular combination in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, where powerful women such as Clytemnestra, Electra, and Medea brought terrible consequences on those who they perceived as having wronged them. This theme has continued to fascinate audiences to the present day.
The Amazons #
“In Greek myth, Amazons were fierce warrior women of exotic Eastern lands, as courageous and skilled in battle as the mightiest Greek heroes. Amazons were major characters not only in the legendary Trojan War but also in the chronicles of the greatest Greek city-state, Athens.
“Every great champion of myth – Heracles, Theseus, Achilles – proved his valor by overcoming powerful warrior queens and their armies of women. Those glorious struggles against foreign man-killers were recounted in oral tales and written epics and illustrated in countless artworks throughout the Greco-Roman world. Famous historical figures, among them King Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey, also tangled with Amazons. Greek and Latin authors never doubted that Amazons had existed in the remote past, and many reported that women living the life of Amazons still dwelled in lands around the Black Sea and beyond. Modern scholars, on the other hand, usually consign Amazons to the realm of the Greek imagination.
Among the nomad horse-riding peoples of the steppes known to the Greeks as ‘Scythians,’ women lived the same rugged outdoor life as the men. These ‘warlike tribes have no cities, no fixed abodes,’ wrote one ancient historian; ’they live free and unconquered, so savage that even the women take part in war.’ Archaeology reveals that about one out of three or four nomad women of the steppes was an active warrior buried with her weapons.
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World Adrienne Mayor Princeton University Press, 2014 Pages: 10-12 ……. When Achilles saw the queen of the Amazons, he instantly fell in love. You can see why. Penthesilea had everything: courage, flashing eyes, a ravishing smile and, if the statues are to be believed, a laissez-faire way with shoulder straps. One breast is almost always popping out.
There was just one problem: she also had a spear through her heart, and it was he who had put it there. Penthesilea had approached on horseback in full armour and he speared both her and horse in one. When he took her off he realised what he had done, but it was too late. She quivered and died “like meat on a spit”.
Achilles, ruing that he had caused an actual mort rather than la petite, grieved bitterly.
She deserved his tears: being an Amazon in ancient times was, even at its best, a bit of a mixed bag. On the bright side you escaped the dreary fate of a Greek wife (weaving, women’s quarters, husbands who were fonder of pederasty than of you).
If there is any truth in the Amazon legend, then it lies in the Scythian and Sarmatian graves to be found here. In Ukraine in a 4th-century BC grave, one woman was buried with iron lance points and arrows in a feathered quiver.
Another woman in a 7th-century BC grave in Tuva was buried in a gold cap deco¬rated with a panther and (less ferociously) a wooden ladle with a golden handle. Perhaps even Amazons liked cooking occasionally.
Catherine Nixey is author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. THE TIMES
Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World By John Man, Bantam,
Hypatia was the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, a popular teacher and lecturer on philosophical topics, attracting many loyal students and large Christian audiences. Her philosophy was Neoplatonist and was thus seen as “pagan” at a time of bitter religious conflict between Christians (both orthodox and “heretical”), Jews, and pagans. Her philosophy also led her to embrace a life of dedicated virginity.
With the death of Theophilus and the accession of Cyril to the bishopric of Alexandria, however, the climate of tolerance lapsed, and shortly afterward Hypatia became the victim of a particularly brutal murder at the hands of a gang of Christian zealots.
Incited by the Church, Hypatia, aged sixty, was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 CE accused of sorcery and witchcraft.
On her way home Hypatia was dragged from her Chariot, taken to a church called Caesareum, - stripped, stoned with roofing tiles, torn apart, her flesh scraped from the bones with oyster shells and then burned.
Hypatia has become a powerful feminist symbol and a figure of affirmation for intellectual endeavour in the face of ignorant prejudice.
Roman Women #
Ancient Rome was a patriarchal society in which women were perceived as mere objects of men.
Lily Moore, PhD Candidate in Classics and Archaeology, The University of Melbourne (The Conversation) claims:
It was a socially sanctioned custom for husbands to punish their wives for drinking because it led to adultery. In 2 BCE, Julia, daughter of Emperor Augustus, was exiled from Rome by her father on the grounds of her adulterous behaviour. One of the prohibitions was the denial of wine.
Egnatius Mecenius (a contemporary of Romulus) bludgeoned his wife to death for drinking wine.
Another wife starved to death for pilfering the keys to her family’s wine cellar, another fined the amount of her dowry for having been found to have drunk wine in excess.
An enforced sobriety was equated with virtuous feminine propriety.
Some sources maintain it was a common practice for women to be kissed by their male kinsfolk for the purpose of detecting traces of wine upon their breath.
Ancient Rome didn’t have specific domestic violence legislation – but the laws they had give us a window into a world of abuse
According to The Conversation, May 24, 2022, Eleanor Cowan, Ashley Finn, Kimberly Harris, Kirsten Parkin, Tim Parkin. Domestic violence was endemic in the Roman world.
Rome was a slave-owning, patriarchal, militarised culture in which violence (potential and actual) signalled power and control.
Nero’s second wife Poppaea Sabina was kicked to death while pregnant. His first wife Octavia and his mother Agrippina were murdered on his orders.
According to her epitaph, Julia Maiana was killed after 28 years of marriage.
Appia Annia Regilla, an aristocratic woman and wife of the Greek author Herodes Atticus, was murdered while pregnant.
Prima Florentia was drowned. Apronia was thrown from a window.
The love poets Ovid and Propertius depicted relationships with “Corinna” and “Cynthia” involving physical abuse.
John Chrysostom, a church father, described the nightly shrieks of women echoing through the streets of Antioch.
Julius Caesar divorced his second wife, Pompeia because of her involvement in a scandal with another man, although the man had been acquitted in the law courts;
Caesar is reported to have said,
“The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion.”
Can a woman’s voice ever be right? “In ancient Rome, women were forbidden from speaking in the forum, but during the civil wars and political tumult of the late republic, the rules about public oration loosened a bit, which is why we know of Caia Afrania, who insisted on speaking for herself when she came before the court.
She also acted as a lawyer for others, which was common among men but unheard of for women. The hostility she suffered for this perceived impudence was tremendous. An ‘Afrania’ became slang for an unpleasant woman.
Rome passed a law forbidding women to plead cases other than their own. The rancor was directed not just at the fact of her speech but at the sound of her voice. The writer Valerius Maximus called it an ‘unnatural yapping’, a ‘bark’, a ‘constant harassment of the magistrate’.
Detractors pronounced her shameless for exposing her voice before so many.
We know only her death date (48 AD) because, as Maximus wrote, ‘with unnatural freaks like this it’s more important to record when they died than when they were born’.” – The Cut
The rise of the nation state allowed gendered roles by elite males to grab power and property from women and the vulnerable.
The 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle believed:
“the history of the world is but the biography of great men”.
Biblical Women #
Paul enumerates a set of rules that appear to grant men authority over their wives, to order women to be silent in church, and to forbid them from teaching the word of God. These reflect Roman traditions, rather than the teachings of Christ.
Medieval Women #
The figure of the witch has long cast a spell on women displaying an uncanny knowledge of nature or a voracious sexuality. In fact, many of “witches” persecuted in Europe from the 15th century onward were midwives and healers, in line with a long tradition of lay medical practice that was more pragmatic than theoretical.
Isabella Gagliardi writes:
The Schola Salernitana, operated in Salerno in the 9th and 10th centuries, was an institution attended by many women, including the pioneering gynaecologist and surgeon known as Trota (or Trotula) (13th century), the surgeon and eye specialist, e.g. Costanza Calenda (15th century), doctor Abella di Castellomata (14th century), or Rebecca Guarna (14th century).
Boccaccio, mentions a woman doctor in the Decameron. The narrator, Dioneo, recounts the tale of a certain Gillette of Narbonne, a gifted doctor who became betrothed to her beloved Bertrand de Roussillon as a reward for curing the King of France of a fistula in his chest. Boccaccio’s characterisation of Gillette is patently aware of the monarch’s lack of trust in her, both as a woman and as a “damsel”. Addressing the King, she says:
“Great King, let not my skill and experience be despised because I am young and a maiden, for my profession is not physic, neither do I undertake the administering thereof, as depending on my own knowledge ; but by the gracious assistance of Heaven, and some rules of skilful observation which I learned of reverend Gerard of Narbonne, who was my worthy father and a physician of no mean fame all the while he lived.”
The gradual disappearance of women doctors in the Medieval period can be linked to bans imposed by the Church, and the progressive professionalisation of the medical field, through universities, and guilds; all founded and controlled by men.
Women gradually made themselves heard in the 19 th century.
At the height of vaudeville, around 1915, … most routines were, in the fashion of the time, appallingly racist and sexist. Whether Black or white, women were portrayed as nagging, avaricious, frigid, and stupid, and it was not unusual for a sketch to end with a husband shooting his wife. Fair targets also included the mentally ill, gay people, little people, and the obese.
Women behind men #
Theodora, (born c. 497 CE—died June 28, 548, Constantinople [now Istanbul, Turkey]), Byzantine empress, wife of the emperor Justinian I (reigned 527–565), probably the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Her intelligence and political acumen made her Justinian’s most trusted adviser and enabled her to use the power and influence of her office to promote religious and social policies that favoured her interests.
She became an actress and courtesan (prostitute) while still young, leading an unconventional life that included giving birth to at least one child out of wedlock. Attracted by her beauty and intelligence, Justinian made her his mistress and married her in 525. Her disreputable background meant that prior to the marriage, special legislation had to be passed legalizing unions between actresses and men of senatorial rank or higher. When Justinian succeeded to the throne in 527, she was proclaimed augusta.
Theodora exercised considerable influence, it was she, rather than Justinian, who ruled Byzantium. Her name is mentioned in nearly all the laws passed during that period. She received foreign envoys and corresponded with foreign rulers, functions usually reserved for the emperor. Her influence in political affairs was decisive, as illustrated in the Nika revolt of January 532. The two political factions in Constantinople, the Blues and the Greens, united in their opposition to the government and set up a rival emperor. Justinian’s advisers urged him to flee, but Theodora advised him to stay and save his empire.
On January 18, Theodora attended the Imperial Council meeting discussing the Nika riot. She addressed the council with the following words:
“Whether or not a woman should give an example of courage to men is neither here nor there…I think that flight, even if it brings us to safety, is not in our interest. Every man born to see the light of day must die. But that one who has been emperor should become an exile I cannot bear.”
Reputedly, whereupon Justinian’s general, Belisarius, herded the rioters into the Hippodrome and cut them to pieces.
Theodora is remembered as one of the first rulers to recognize the rights of women, passing strict laws to prohibit the traffic in young girls and altering the divorce laws to give greater benefits to women.
Under Empress Theodora, rape became punishable by death. No matter their position or status, everyone present during the rape was affected by this rule, and the rapist’s property was handed over to the victim.
Empress Theodora ensured women had voices during divorce settlements, outlawed forced prostitution, and enabled women to inherit and possess property. On the Asian side of the empire, Dardanelles, Empress Theodora established sanctuaries for prostitution and rape victims and provided shelter and food for those without homes.
Empress Theodora and Members of Her Court, early 20th century (original dated 6th century), via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Eleanor Roosevelt #
“Well-behaved women seldom make history” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Maya Angelou, Florence Nightingale, Frida Kahlo and her friend, aviator Amelia Earhart.
Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the Democrats’ “New Deal” and the second world war, ER transformed the First Lady role from largely ceremonial to much more publicly and politically engaged one.
As well as opening the White House to new constituencies, she extended her duties far beyond the official residence. With the president’s mobility compromised by his paralysis, ER was frequently dispatched to gather evidence, inspect government works and assess public opinion within the US and sometimes internationally.
FDR’s successor Harry Truman appointed her US delegate to the United Nations, declaring her “First Lady of the World”. As Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (1946-51), she was a driving force in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 – although not the only one.
As First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was admired, but controversial. Now, she frequently tops US polls as the most popular First Lady in history. Fascination with her life and character has only increased, indexed by a steady stream of books focused on her private life — her marriage to womaniser FDR, her passionate friendships with women and men, who may or may not have been lovers – as well her public achievements. Amy Bloom’s 2018 novel White Houses, fictionalising Eleanor’s relationship with journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickock, was a bestseller, as is the most recent biography by David Michaelis.
In 1968, Eleanor Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the UN Human Rights Prize and in 1998, the United Nations Association of the USA inaugurated the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.
Eva Peron #
Eva Perón, (born May 7, 1919, Los Toldos, Argentina—died July 26, 1952, Buenos Aires), second wife of Argentine Pres. Juan Perón, who, during her husband’s first term as president (1946–52), became a powerful though unofficial political leader, revered by the lower economic classes. Eva attracted the attention of a rising star of the new government, Col. Juan Perón, and the two married in 1945. Later that year he was ousted by a coup of rival army and navy officers and briefly taken into custody. After his release, Juan entered the presidential race. Eva was active in the campaign, and she won the adulation of the masses, whom she addressed as los descamisados (Spanish: “the shirtless ones”). He was elected and took office in June 1946.
Although she never held any government post, Eva acted as de facto minister of health and labour, awarding generous wage increases to the unions, who responded with political support for Perón. After cutting off government subsidies to the traditional Sociedad de Beneficencia (Spanish: “Aid Society”), thereby making more enemies among the traditional elite, she replaced it with her own Eva Perón Foundation, which was supported by “voluntary” union and business contributions plus a substantial cut of the national lottery and other funds. These resources were used to establish thousands of hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the aged, and other charitable institutions. Eva was largely responsible for the passage of the women’s suffrage law and formed the Peronista Feminist Party in 1949. She also introduced compulsory religious education into all Argentine schools. In 1951, although dying of cancer, she obtained the nomination for vice president, but the army forced her to withdraw her candidacy.
After her death in 1952, Eva remained a formidable influence in Argentine politics. Her working-class followers tried unsuccessfully to have her canonized, and her enemies, in an effort to exorcise her as a national symbol of Peronism, stole her embalmed body in 1955, after Juan Perón was overthrown, and secreted it in Italy for 16 years. In 1971 the military government, bowing to Peronist demands, turned over her remains to her exiled widower in Madrid. After Juan Perón died in office in 1974, his third wife, Isabel Perón, hoping to gain favour among the populace, repatriated the remains and installed them next to the deceased leader in a crypt in the presidential palace. Two years later a new military junta hostile to Peronism removed the bodies. Eva’s remains were finally interred in the Duarte family crypt in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Jiang Qing #
(born March 1914, Zhucheng, Shandong province, China—died May 14, 1991), third wife of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and the most influential woman in the People’s Republic of China for a while until her downfall in 1976, after Mao’s death. As a member of the Gang of Four she was convicted in 1981 of “counter-revolutionary crimes” and imprisoned.
Jiang, who was reared by her relatives, became a member of a theatrical troupe in 1929. Her activity in a communist-front organization in 1933 led to her arrest and detainment. Upon her release she went to Shanghai. She was arrested again in Shanghai in 1934 and left for Beijing after her release, but she later returned to Shanghai, where she played minor roles for the left-wing Diantong Motion Pictures Company under her new stage name, Lan Ping.
When the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937, Jiang fled to the Chinese Nationalist wartime capital at Chongqing, where she worked for the government-controlled Central Movie Studio until she crossed the Nationalist lines. She went through Xi’an to join the communist forces in Yan’an and started to use the name Jiang Qing. While a drama instructor at the Lu Xun Art Academy, she met Mao for the first time when he gave a talk at the school. They were married in 1939 (technically, she was Mao’s fourth wife; he had an arranged marriage in his youth but never acknowledged it). The marriage was criticized by many party members, especially since the woman whom Mao divorced (one of the few women to survive the communists’ Long March of 1934–35) was then hospitalized in Moscow. Party leaders agreed to the marriage on condition that Jiang stay out of politics for the next 20 years.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Jiang remained out of public view except to serve as Mao’s hostess for foreign visitors or to sit on various cultural committees. In 1963, however, she became more politically active, sponsoring a movement in the theatrical form jingxi (Peking opera) and in ballet aimed at infusing traditional Chinese art forms with proletarian themes. Jiang’s cultural reform movement gradually grew into a prolonged attack on many of the leading cultural and intellectual figures in China and culminated in the Cultural Revolution that by 1966 had begun to sweep the country.
Jiang reached the height of her power and influence in 1966, winning renown for her fiery speeches to mass gatherings and her involvement with the radical young Red Guard groups of the revolution. One of the few people whom Mao trusted, she became the first deputy head of the Cultural Revolution and acquired far-reaching powers over China’s cultural life. She oversaw the total suppression of a wide variety of traditional cultural activities during the decade of the revolution. As the revolution’s initial fervour waned in the late 1960s, however, so did Jiang’s prominence. She reemerged in 1974 as a cultural leader and spokeswoman for Mao’s new policy of “settling down.”
Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, and the radicals in the party lost their protector. A month later, wall posters appeared attacking Jiang and three other radicals as the Gang of Four, and the attacks grew progressively more hostile. Jiang and the other members of the Gang of Four were soon afterward arrested. She was expelled from the Communist Party in 1977. In 1980–81 at her public trial as a member of the Gang of Four, Jiang was accused of fomenting the widespread civil unrest that had gripped China during the Cultural Revolution, but she refused to confess her guilt; instead, she denounced the court and the country’s leaders. She received a suspended death sentence, but in 1983 it was commuted to life imprisonment. Her death in prison was officially reported as a suicide.