Women’s Role Models: Politicians

Okay, the now traditional reminders first. I’m focussing on the period between 800-1600 A.D. (or C.E.). I’ve specifically picked this period because this tends to be the inspiration for “medieval” fantasy although this actually covers a number of historic time periods. However you split the time frame up, a lot of things changed so any generalisations will be crude and possibly insulting.

The disclaimers:

  1. I am doing this from a (white) British point of view.
  2. I am not a historian.
  3. I may remember things wrong, particularly as I have a tendency to see the possibility of a story rather than the details.

In this final post in the series, I’m going to look at Politicians – the grouping that actually inspired this whole set of posts.

Cleaning up My Definitions

To a certain extent, the term “Politician” is a catch-all for everything that’s left over, once we’ve taken Ringers, Soldiers and Generals out of the equation – or once we’ve accepted that there is so much difference between a man and a woman that a woman simply is not capable of … insert your own choice of occupation here.

While a Politician will actually rely heavily on the difference between biological sexes, it isn’t quite as simple as that. A politician – in the sense I’m covering, in the usual modern usage and in literal meaning – is someone who deals with, and potentially in, other people. So, we’re looking at women who have power “despite” being (probably) unskilled, (possibly) uneducated, and (highly likely) inexperienced. This is not to say that being able to manage (and manipulate) people isn’t a skill, it’s just not skilled labour in the same way that the three main routes to “success” (crafts, church and combat) that have been looked at previously.

There is also the added question about certain well known women who were also artists of some description. Some royals, nobles and courtesans are mentioned as being “also” writers and poets. While they might have been acclaimed at this calling, in most cases they didn’t make a living from this skill. They are probably equivalent to those celebrities who write after they’ve developed the audience and the skill, no matter how well developed or well received, should be considered a secondary characteristic for the purposes of this post. (Which would probably upset the women in question.)

How Did It Come To This?

Even when military or combat education for women was acceptable, there will have been royal, noble and knightly families who did not see the need to let their daughters have access to it. For example, if they were particularly wealthy, their sons would never use their combat skills, let alone their daughters, therefore it would have been considered less than useful. As skills like fencing and archery became more sporting than life-saving, these could also fall by the wayside as an indulgent subject rather than a necessity. In keeping up with the Joneses or equivalents, there will have been plenty of families who didn’t educate their women as suggested by Christine de Pizan (quoted from the Lothene pages on women warriors [External Link]):

“We have also said that she [the baroness] ought to have the heart of a man, that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack or to defend against one.”

Basically, they were too wealthy or too powerful for this need to arise, so this part of a noble education was not made available to their daughters. They would, however, have taught them languages, dancing, and how to run their households. The range of further subjects, such as mathematics and philosophy, would have depended on how much money was actually available for tutors.

This would have been mimicked by the “middle classes” – the merchants and the wealthier craftsmen. A family wealthy enough to maintain its women in the manner of ladies was a family to be respected. The women of said families, well, they would still have been accomplished at more womanly crafts and skills, with whatever further, intellectual education their families could afford tutors for.

This would not have stopped individual women from either grouping being intelligent, or driven, or power-seeking.

In the lower ends of the social scale, there will have been people who were too poor to have readily marketable skills within the family and therefore unable to provide their daughters with access to guild-regulated crafts. The lower levels who were involved in agriculture would have been divided into those who had their own strips of land and commoners (i.e. those whom only had access to common land). Not all children raised into these families would have wanted to – or been able to – follow in the land-working tradition due to inheritance issues or lack of ability. It goes without saying that there were people who were lower still, the kind of people we think of a “vagrants” and “urchins”. There will have been precious few ways to make a living open to them, let alone ways of being publicly recognised as “skilled”.

These situations would have worsened – i.e. more girls would have fallen into this category – as the combination of religious misogyny and familial displays of wealth and/or power strengthened through the period – and as technology meant that hand to hand combat was effectively outdated. That there were these pressures all through the period can be seen with the use of phrases such as “I am only a weak woman but…”. It’s the increasing regularity of their use that marks the growing importance of the Politician and the associated skills.

Nothing but Her Character To Recommend Her

There will always have been, and probably always will be, Politicians in the sense used here and in the general modern sense. There will always be people (regardless of gender, or other traits) who want power and / or recognition. The real issue is the access to education and training to have skills outside of “man management”, i.e. whether there is a route to success for Soldier and General character types. When such a route doesn’t exist or isn’t available to an individual, needs must.

With respect to women, we’re basically back to my comment in the General’s post: Great choice, by the way, being regarded as “unwomanly” or as showing “the worst of feminine traits”. However, to a certain extent the decision has already been made in that the women in question will not have “unwomanly” skills to fall back on. They can still chose to be “unwomanly” by putting on men’s dress – perhaps to the extent of presenting themselves as men (see Ringers) – but Politicians in the sense used here would consider that a last resort. Either they identify as women so heavily they considered it wrong, or they were so strongly led by social opinion that they didn’t dare risk their “good character”, or they rely on their sexuality too much for being a Ringer became an option available to them.

This doesn’t stop them using “the worst of feminine traits” – which could be manipulation, trading on their sexuality or using the authority of a higher power – because they can always return to the defense of being a weak bodied, weak willed woman. Probably with a wide-eyed, innocent look. We all use it at times – after all, if a man is ignorant enough to assume my years of engineering and outdoor work mean nothing, I’m happy for him to do the hard labour.

During the period of time we’re looking at, the defense of being a weak woman had always been available. Look at Hildegard of Bingen, the General role model I gave, who used God’s authority because her ideas wouldn’t have been acceptable as a mere woman. Look at Joan of Arc, the Soldier role model, who also relied on God’s authority for her inspiration. (We’ll leave aside whether their visions were simply a tool or whether they really believed in them, or more likely both.) By the end of our period, what you will find elsewhere as the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, most women of power are Politicians. A list of them will look very much like a Who’s Who of European royalty and nobility. (Yes, we will be coming back to that.)

The easiest assumption is that this relates to the Church. Although the Roman Catholic Church was rumbling into various religious reformations with communities breaking off, what was essentially fifteen centuries of negative press about women still had a strong hold on the Western mind – despite the fact that it had taken a significant amount of time for this to gain much of a hold. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been Soldiers and Generals in this set of posts at all.

Which indicates it isn’t all the Church’s fault – the use of “ladies” as display pieces is just as guilty. While it’s easy to use this as a set up for a sexism rant, it’s worthwhile pointing out that young men of these families were probably not that much better off. The key difference was that they had a legal identity and were therefore “available” to forward a family’s interests with more than a good match. The society’s view was not much more than a reflection of that long standing legal situation, which was that way because it was always assumed that a man would uphold the legal rights of any woman in his household. So, should a man disagree with his father’s (and mother’s?) choices, he would also find himself thrust out of the family home. He were just more likely to be able to make a living once he had.

Best in Show

The question here is “how do we measure success?”, particularly when a woman is considered a display piece. In historic terms, we can only judge something to have worked, and worked well, if there is a record of it. Everything else is supposition. But we can make a few educated guesses and assumptions once we know certain things exist. For example, we know that craftswomen worked alongside their husbands because we have widows taking over the family business, and “so-and-so’s wife” being referred to on court roles. This would have been unlikely to happen if the woman in question hadn’t already been working with her husband. We know that there were Ringers but the records are, mainly, for those who were “caught out”. In real terms, a Ringer is successful when they remain accepted as a man – or return to presenting as a woman if and when they are ready – but very few records for those successes exist. We have to assume that there are a number of women further to the ones we know about, it’s simply a matter of deciding what percentage “made it”.

Further to this, there are many jobs that weren’t written about a great deal. Low level agriculture, i.e. where not associated with running an estate, won’t be recorded unless the head of the household finds themselves in court. For anyone born to a particularly low life – much lower than Joan of Arc and without the momentary flair of brilliance, say – but is still relatively successful (i.e. they make a living and maybe save some money), we can expect to find next to nothing about them. There were also plenty of lay women in the R. C. Church and leaders of Protestant campaigns who will have been treated similarly by the written record. It was only the ones who came to high or national notice who will have had much, if anything, written about them and generally only the ones who were already noticeable (i.e. noble) would have received that kind of attention.

There were also the women who took some measure of rule for themselves, noble and royal women who managed to grasp the right to lead to themselves. Not all of them were brilliant – after all, there has to be an average and a “lower than average” in order to have a “better than average” – but those who were probably would have been successful Generals had they had the skills and thought that it was acceptable to pursue such careers. Instead, they remained more obviously dependent on the men around them.

Then, of course, there are the outright failures by historic standards. The higher status women will be remembered as figureheads, never quite in charge of their own destiny, and the lower status women were just peasantry (as most people were) and so not remembered at all.

Medieval Attitudes to Sex Aren’t So Medieval

The Politician is the first character type where female sexuality – as oppose to the men / not-men coverage in the Ringers post – and how it was approached really needs to be looked at. Ringers succeed by turning their back on the expectations of women by presenting themselves as men and side-stepping their biological sex; Soldiers and Generals succeed by achieving in a manner that essentially “surpasses” or is extra to the expectations placed on them as women; Politicians succeed by making use of their femininity, either presenting themselves as a good example or by making use of their sexuality (or the promise of it). In parallel with this, there is a certain assumption that any woman who chooses her life or sexual partner, instead of being obedient to her parents’ or husband’s wishes, tends towards the use and abuse of sexuality, and so is generally a rum ‘un. This is the assumption that women and their sexuality are a Bad Thing, the root of Original Sin and the source of Temptation.

So, how about those who more obviously rely on their sexuality than the model citizens glossed over above? Well, these come in four flavours. It’s debatable, of course, how much control any individual would have actually had over her choice of partners, but we can assume that life quality was somewhat better as we move down the list.

  1. Prostitutes on the street
  2. Prostitutes in a brothel
  3. Courtesans
  4. Mistresses

Most sex workers will have been street prostitutes and so low on the social scale that it’s unlikely that anything about their life has been recorded unless they’ve ended up in front of the law courts. Prostitutes in brothels (or even madams) get the same ignomy but at least they had a roof over their heads. The only other alternative, in terms of making it into modern times, is graffiti that shows a certain level of success or notoriety.

There is something of a grey area in this period, due to lack of records, that suggests that a woman without a husband may have “indulged” in prostitution to top up a lack of family funds. I found this suggestion here: Sex, Society, And Medieval Women by N. M. Heckel [External Link]. While an interesting point for building fictional worlds and an indicator that medieval attitudes to sex were a lot different than we tend to assume, it’s not a definite historic fact (as far as I know).

Courtesans (or escorts) can be further subdivided into those who were intellectually engaging – something more laddish modern commentators will dismiss as “boring” – or little better than a highly paid, higher class prostitute who has moved beyond having to live in a brothel because she is earning enough to keep a house of her own. Running alongside that, nearly all levels of society will have had mistresses – the only obstruction being whether a man can afford one, much like an Old Testament concubine. Only the women who became mistresses of famous men will have more serious comment attached. The line between mistresses and courtesans is thin but has more to do with perceived virtue. More on that in a minute.

Of course, this all assumes that the “natural order” is maintained and that women love men, etc, etc. There is no doubt there were women in relationships together but, based on my limited reading, it seems to have been treated as nothing much more threatening than women being extremely close friends. In other words, as it doesn’t result in any bastards and as long as it doesn’t reflect badly on the men in your life, it’s probably permissible.

So, where a wife’s use of her body (as mother of future children) was sanctioned by the Church, a courtesan’s or a mistress’s was not – except that it stopped greater sins such as masturbation, rape and seduction. Early medieval record says little about mistresses and courtesans other than tangentially – illegitimate children were acknowledged, kings and queens often maintained separate households and lived apart, etc, etc – but the records also do not mention the wives much, either. In the case of royalty, wives (as queens) were there to provide the mercy to soften their king’s judgement while mistresses and courtesans were simply there to provide (usually short-lived) entertainment. A true mistress would still be expected to have a measure of fidelity to their lover and their reputations could be just as damaged from loving another man, even if it was unrequited or just a rumour. Courtesans would be more expected to have a number of clients or lovers at any one time but necessity would ensure the number of lovers was low as being connected with too many men might put potential clients off.

As the period draws on, more and more mention is made of both wives and mistresses. I suspect the key is that marriages for royalty and nobility were almost purely political. While the partners might grow to have some kind of affection for each other, it was hardly the stuff of romance and the political influence of a wife was actually due to her value as mother of the next generation – and, therefore, the influence she would have on the next holder of the title. The men in the relationship had the option of finding other romantic and sexual partners that stole something of the wife’s intermediary position – that is, as the person who put the man in a good mood and made him approachable. Very often, it became clear that a mistress was more important to a king (and thus his court) than his wife. It’s rare, although not unknown, for a woman to be given the same freedom. When they were, it was after they had produced healthy heirs and they had little more to give to the relationship.

Here are four quick French examples of mistresses who were considered more important than wives:

  • Odette de Champdivers (c1390-c1425), mistress of Charles VI, was referred to as “la petite riene” (the little queen). While I won’t go into further detail, the nickname alone indicates that she was considered hugely important to the king. (Wikipedia article [External Link])
  • Agnès Sorel (1422-1450), mistress of Charles VII (the one Joan of Arc was so anxious to have crowned), is often considered the first officially recognised royal mistress. In other words, she was so important to her king that he acknowledged her role. (Wikipedia article [External Link])
  • Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly (1508-1580), mistress of Francois I, was considered so much more important than his new wife that she shared a window with François I when his queen entered the city of Paris. This is the clean, Wikipedia version. I’ve read versions with lack of clothing and sex involved as Queen Eleanor had the honour of looking up in horror and shame. (Wikipedia article [External Link])
  • Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), mistress of Henri II, was generally acknowledged before his wife while Henri was alive – and Diane became one of Henri’s most trusted allies with a great amount of political power. (Wikipedia article [External Link])

Back to Maiden, Mother, Crone

Again, I’m using the following age bandings:

  • Child, the next generation.
  • Maiden, the candidate for change, unsettled and ready to move.
  • Mother, the establishment, settled and not ready to move.
  • Crone, ousted by the establishment and encouraging the candidate for change, yet settled and not ready to move.

It would be easy to dismiss the education of a nascent Politician as no education at all. However, it would very much depend on their family’s social standing and wealth. In most families, the education of a son and a daughter might actually be very similar – neither would be taught any heavy crafts (i.e. wood, stone or metal work). Some things remain as we would expect with combat skills purely for (generally male) sport and females would be expected to do things with cloth and run the house. The rest depended on wealth and opportunity: the number of languages, the range of sciences, that kind of thing.

Once into reproductive or acceptable sexually active age, both genders become useful to the very rich. While engagements and a few marriages may have been negotiated before hand, these could always be called off or annulled. It wasn’t until the couple could potentially reproduce that it was taken seriously. However, being married didn’t stop a young woman from being a marketable commodity (becoming mistresses to higher ranking men than their husbands) – and some young women managed to successfully retain their freedom from marriage, either by joining a convent (and thus moving category, I suppose) or by playing suitors against each other.

The lower status women had more individual freedom with respect to marriage but less education, less options and fewer opportunities. For them, having a child would effectively be time away from – or, at least, reduced efficiency at – whatever work opportunities they had. Child-bearing wasn’t as big a deal for the royalty, nobility and the classes that ape them. It was rare for a woman to actually raise her own children once she had borne them. Someone else would be the care-giver, so a woman’s responsibilities were effectively fewer. It could be said (as a gross generalisation) that rich women funded the Renaissance and the Enlightenment through basic boredom and curiosity.

They approached their old age with the same expectation of gentility. Children would provide for their future and it would be as comfortable as family wealth would allow. The lower status women, however, would have considered that a luxury – assuming they made it to old age – and will have spent their earlier stages grafting to ensure they had a little something to keep them going.

A Basic List. Or Not

Rather than list all the women of high rank that haven’t been mentioned in connection with fighting or the Church, I think I’ll stick with the easiest thing: If you’re interested in seeing how these things worked, select a royal family and work your way through all the women. You’ll magically find yourself disappearing into connected noble families and wonder where all the time went. I’ll just go through a handful of names as examples and move on.

The Ur-example (i.e. the one most people would think of) is probably Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603). She will becoming up again but not as my role model example. Elizabeth is possibly the most successful Politician covered in the period 800-1600. Although she started life as a princess, she saw some ups and downs before gaining her crown and she kept her people dazzled for a very long time. Some successful, if slightly less so, women of about the same time are related either by blood or by marriage:

  1. Mary I of England (1516-1558), Elizabeth’s older half-sister, seized the throne in 1553. She can be deemed a success mainly because she died in office, and of ill-health. She had been forced to accept her half-sister as her heir despite being married (or, from the English nobles’ point of view, because she was married to the Spanish King).
  2. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), Mary’s maternal grandmother. She was the figurehead, and a political leader, of a rebellion against her older half-brother. She secured the right to be his heir, pulled the kingdom out of debt and secured peace by marrying Ferdinand II of Aragon. She also has the dubious honour of being a driving force behind the Reconquista of Spain.
  3. Jane Seymour (c1508-1537), Mary’s step-mother, and again the mark of success is that she died in the highest possible rank: Queen Consort of England. It’s debatable, however, how much she counts as a Politician as she didn’t actually appear to try to be Henry VIII of England’s love interest and the main attraction was her nice character. (But maybe the Boleyn and Howard women do that to a man.)
  4. Catherine Parr (1512-1548), another step-mother to Mary and Elizabeth. Here, success is denoted by a) surviving Henry and b) being a noted, respected source of advice. Catherine was a recognised author (authoress?) in her time but she wouldn’t have had the audience if she hadn’t had the rank first.
  5. Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), a mother-in-law of Mary I of Scotland and thus a cousin by marriage of Mary I and Elizabeth I of England. Catherine was Queen Consort of France and then Queen Regent and Queen Mother. Without her, none of her three son-kings would have held on to their throne.
  6. Bessie Blount (c1501-c1539), the mother of Henry VIII’s only acknowledged bastard, Henry FitzRoy, half-brother of Mary and Elizabeth. Bessie entered the scene as a lady-in-waiting and never gained noble or court rank from the relationship. She did, however, make good, secure marriages and amassed a fair sized (shared) estate.

Out of the same generations, here are some failures. Although “failure” is not the right word in some cases. After all, a few of them were technically lucky escapes from the madness of the English royal court.

  1. Jane Grey / Dudley (c1536-1554), cousin to Mary I and Elizabeth I of England. Jane’s biggest failure was that she was young and (apparently) a nice person. She didn’t have the ruthless character necessary to control the rebellion that used her as a figurehead and she probably didn’t want it, having been put there by her father and father-in-law.
  2. Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Mary I’s mother. Catherine is not an also ran. She was effectively raised to be the Princess of Wales but, due to the death of her first husband (Henry VIII’s brother) ended up in the wrong marriage. Except it wasn’t, at first, until she couldn’t provide a male heir. She shared a political vision with her father-in-law and her first husband, and had stuck with it. It almost worked but Mary I was the only child to survive more than a few months – which wasn’t enough for Henry.
  3. Anne Boleyn (150?-1536), Elizabeth I’s mother. While not the first Boleyn girl to be “of interest” to Henry, Anne was wily enough to hold out until she’d got a promise of marriage – and, incidentally, ensured England and Wales would become Protestant. She also failed to provide a male heir. She wasn’t given as long as Catherine to prove herself, probably because she had a habit of arguing with Henry.
  4. Mary Boleyn (c1499-1549), Anne’s sister, was married when she was pushed forward as a dalliance for the king. Her first two children may have been fathered by him but were never recognised. Mary was banished from the royal court in 1534.
  5. Anne of Cleves (1515-1557), another step-mother to Mary and Elizabeth, never really seemed to try. She didn’t challenge her right to stay married to Henry – bearing in mind they hadn’t consummated – and seemed quite happy to live in retirement in the English countryside, although she did maintain a role as part of the Tudor children’s extended family.
  6. Catherine Howard (c1521-1542), yet another step-mother to Mary and Elizabeth and the last needed for a complete set. Again, it’s debatable how much of the relationship with Henry she chose for herself and she may or may not have committed the adultery she was charged with. I suspect the real weakness here was that Henry had the attention span of a toddler with severe ADHD and bored easily. (He didn’t really need another male heir by this time, although a spare would have been good.)
  7. Mary I of Scotland (1542-1587), first cousin once removed to Mary and Elizabeth of England. Her main failure was that she was not as brilliant as Elizabeth. She wasn’t an incompetent Politician but she came up against a number of problems:
    • She was a committed Catholic who expected to rule a country where Protestantism was strong and there were other, Protestant candidates;
    • She felt she had a right to the English throne (she had in terms of being related to the royal family) but that right also related to “restoring” Catholicism, at least as the majority religion. As a result, she plotted against Elizabeth (who she considered a bastard);
    • She felt she had the right to marry for love, leading to her second and (possibly) her third marriages. Evidence suggests that both Darnley (husband 2) and Bothwell (husband 3) took things too far, Darnley in demanding political equality or supremacy and Bothwell in personal violence against Mary and anyone who threatened his authority.

Role Model: Veronica Franco

(Wikipedia: Veronica Franco [External Link])

Going back to the grey area of sexuality and people who make a living from sex, I’ve chosen the woman who will turn up in just about any search on courtesans in history. Veronica Franco was an intellectual, a courtesan, a poet, a letter writer, an anthologist and a charity worker – and she was successful at all of these things. She was highly educated and managed to involve herself in literary circles and other such activities that a married, respectable woman probably would not have tried to access. This is enough to fuel the romantic notions of the well-educated courtesan who dazzles and holds court. In other words, just on this brief summary, she was the model of an intelligent, witty, independent woman.

Ready for the “but”?

Veronica was the daughter of another intellectually engaging courtesan. The mother ensured that Franco had a better, wider ranging education than most other women of the time would have received and the two of them secured Veronica a “financially beneficial” marriage while the younger woman was still in her teens. The question is, was a good education, an obviously high intellect and a drive to succeed (as Franco later proved to have) a good set of characteristics in a wife of the time? I suppose it would depend on the relationship but Franco’s didn’t work out.

Having grown up around courtesans, having much the same education (ignoring actual sexual history, because we don’t know what Franco senior’s approach to this was), Veronica fell back on the only thing she knew how to do when the security of her marriage was no longer available to her. She appears to have been very specific and focussed in her clients – choosing intellectuals and wealthy patrons who could ensure she had the time and income to pursue her own intellectual interests. This shows a certain business sense that probably would have done well in a more acceptable sphere – had it been acceptable for women to do business. She still, however, risked her personal health by having sex with them because that was what she did, along with accompanying them to various events.

The tone of the small fragments of writing on the web pages I’ve found (just google her) indicate a sense of female solidarity and wish for equality that a modern mind interprets as feminism. The fact that she founded a charity home for courtesans and their children speaks of a humanitarian, altruistic will that would have been considered exemplary in a lady. Unfortunately, she wasn’t one. Married women, respectable women, women of rank, while not recognised as entities equal to men by the law, had more legal protection than courtesans and the lowest classes. Veronica, then, had to push for everything she did and achieved.

She didn’t manage to hold on to it. She left her home city of Venice when there was an outbreak of plague. While she was gone, her property was looted. When she returned to Venice, she was put on trial (technically, subjected to an inquisition) for witchcraft. It was probably her connections, her rich and well-thought of patrons, that got her acquittal. As far as I know, she didn’t manage to regain her possessions – an indication of her lack of legal protection – although she did manage to rebuild somewhat.

Her life disappears into obscurity a few years later. Whether she went into poverty or “relative poverty” probably depends on how rose-tinted one’s glasses are about the life of a courtesan. Without patrons, and the youth to easily attract more, Veronica wouldn’t have had the income from being a courtesan. It’s unlikely that even a well received author(ess) could pull in enough money from writing to keep her at the social level she would have been before the plague outbreak. By the same token, it doesn’t mean she would have been living on the street if she still had the house that had been looted. I guess we have no choice but to leave the end of Veronica’s story to our imaginations.

More Recent Examples and Modern Equivalence

The list of royal and noble women as Politician continues through to modern times – consider both Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, who favoured the Whig party (equivalent to the Liberal party of modern politics) even though she had no vote of her own, and her multiple greats niece Diana, the Princess of Wales, who could be considered a high profile charity campaigner. Most people assume that mistresses are a dying breed but there are still parts of the world where the institution is as common as marriage and most women in a relationship are encouraged to take on something of the mistress’s traits (i.e. dress up, be kind and loving to your man first, complain to someone else later).

The realm of a true modern Politician would be managerial or even the actual political. So Margaret Thatcher could be considered a successful modern example – in the vein of “I am only a weak woman but…” (or, rather, “women aren’t as weak as you think”). Arguably, people in the entertainment industries (i.e. sportswomen, presenters, actors, celebrities) come under this description as the chosen career sector doesn’t include the kind of physical skills of a craftswoman, or a military career, or a Church / charity / campaigning career. Are there as many famous or well-paid women as there are men? That’s probably a resounding “no”. But there are women involved and obviously so, many of whom are very vocal about various causes despite members of the public grumbling that they aren’t “qualified” or skilled enough to know what they’re talking about. So, everything changes and yet it doesn’t.

Putting That In Writing

It’s very rare to have a woman of this type treated sympathetically – in most instances, they will be treated as someone who is trapped in it. Most lead female characters in fantasy rail against this kind of treatment and try to prove themselves an equal through more “manly” means – crafts, religion and combat, for example. Modern sensibilities – as those of the period I’m looking at – shy away from a woman using manipulation, or trading on their sexuality, or using the authority of a higher power. It smacks of a darker and “dishonourable” nature that no-one is totally sure they want to explore. Fictional examples are generally considered to come under the “tart with a heart” stereotype or, worse, a tart without one. Historic examples only got away with it by being relatively powerful and / or calling on the “weaker sex” argument and that really does not sit well with modern readers who are after strong women. To understand what I’m trying to say, consider how we deal with both stories of infidelity – we typically assume it’s another woman – and long running “poor me” stories from celebrities – we wish they’d suffer quietly after we have the headlines, after that they’re just whining.

While all the character types I’ve mentioned have a struggle with sexuality – in the sense of often being portrayed at one extreme of the virgin-vamp scale or the other – it is the Politician that will most likely get badly tarnished. Particularly a younger woman. Even when she’s a virtuous woman, without lovers, she will be treated as a tease and a flirt, with the extra word “known” implied between “without” and “lovers”. Every interaction where she gets the better of a man will be considered as intentional manipulation using her sexuality – regardless of whether it was her intelligence or his underestimation. If it was an intentional manipulation, then she will be a bad example. A more “natural”, middle-ground approach is very unusual. To add insult to injury, any story that has passed through the medieval period is likely to end up covered with the same assumptions, so anything inspired by actual people or folklore will have to find it’s way through this quagmire.

In other words, we’re dealing with a woman who be typically classed as a heroine in that we expect them to show “feminine” traits such as passive acceptance that we don’t expect a Ringer, Soldier or General to display – having taken on some “male” authority. They break out of this stereotyping not by taking on otherwise male activities or interests but by making active use of whatever they’ve been left with. Where these kind of women fall over in fiction (and folklore) is that they are as capricious as the historic versions often appeared to be and very rarely give reasons for their behaviour. In real life, we can’t read people’s minds and there is a certain element of randomness to a person’s behaviour but, in fiction, we should assume that they have very good reasons for almost every act. A fictional character should make more logical sense to a reader but that leap isn’t always made in how they’re written. Basically, we can expect a Politician to do what they consider best for their own power or own survival, and the survival of those who interest them, where it doesn’t conflict with any deeper seated issues.

For instance, there are a number of fictional copies of Elizabeth I of England, either explicitly her in a fictional world or characters closely modelled on her. The real Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry is often simplified to the political state of England – a foreign royal husband would have assumed power or tried to (see Mary I’s husband Philip of Spain for an example) and a native noble would have favoured his own faction (consider the mess Henry VIII’s search for a decent wife made) – but there will also be an element of personal influence. Perhaps she had no wish to submit herself, not just her country, to a man. Perhaps the one man she wanted to marry was a) not a good political choice and b) already married. Perhaps she was scared to test her reproductive system or knew it wouldn’t work. Perhaps she didn’t actually have any interest in a sexual relationship with men (for whatever reason). These are all things that could be inferred from reading the Wikipedia article [External Link], let alone doing any serious research. Yet these are nuances that don’t often appear in fictional Politicians.

As with Generals, good Politicians have a spectrum. Unlike Generals, bad Politicians make it on to the same spectrum as the good guys. The difference between either end is usually whether they can claim to be doing what they do for a greater good and how comfortable with their own sexuality the character is. The problem is that it’s very hard to get around this. From a modern mentality, where most women have work skills, and hobbies or outside interests, it’s very hard to understand these women. Even though we still have them in our world, we consider them very much a weak minority or something we have left behind in proving ourselves equal. Which means we’re biased against them and will often accept stereotyping and unflattering characteristics being ascribed to them that we wouldn’t accept of other character types.

However, the key thing that really seems to stick with a prominent Politician character is their independence, or lack of it. The appearance of it is usually the inverse of the truth, so Elizabeth I was apparently the most powerful woman in England but in truth was so dependent on her courtiers’ and nobles’ good will that she did nothing to improve women’s legal status despite arguably being in a position to do so – assuming she wanted to. Veronica Franco would appear to be a dependent, requiring the money of patrons in order to survive, yet she did her best to ensure that other children of courtesans wouldn’t have to resort to the same industry. So, a Politician will be independent and thus challenge the status quo in some way, or they will be dependent on the current situation and intent on maintaining it.

  • Protagonist – Where Politicians are hero(in)es, the fact that they do whatever it is they do for the greater good – generally of their people – will be mentioned on a regular basis. They are also more likely to be doomed hero(in)es, their only resource also being the fatal flaw that prevents them quite making it to the end of the story. (Unless the end involves them settling down.)
  • Antagonist – This is effectively the cheap shot. She will be extremely caught up in her right to rule, displaying great focus and control. By extension, this means she’s more likely to be an ice queen, like C.S. Lewis’s Jadis / White Witch. That said, she could alternatively be so comfortable with her own sexuality that she will happily entertain herself with just about anything that moves (and a few things that don’t) in an allusion to Catherine the Great’s reputation.
  • Ally – Expect some reference to “taming”, even if it’s only the assumed taming that comes with marriage and settling down. Alternatively, they’ll be the “tart with a heart” who cares about one particular patron, perhaps more than they should.
  • Advisor – It’s unlikely that a Politician would be considered a trustworthy, sole advisor to anyone but another (budding) Politician. This does not preclude them from having a plot-related role as an advisor in the sense of holding key information or a handy suggestion about what to do. It’s just unlikely to be ongoing if the Politician in question tends to “capricious”.
  • Unexpected Ally – Again, making use of the “capricious” element, a Politician could be a prime candidate for unexpected help. Logically, you could expect such a woman to change allegiance when the hero offers a better deal (for her, her people, her goldfish, her whatever) than the villain – provided she has not been personally upset by said hero. Appealing to how much it will improve life for her (people, goldfish, whatever) is the way to win her round.
  • Henchman – A minor villain version of the Politician is more likely to be like an inverted ally – in that they will be “untamed” or obviously not in the hero’s favour. Expect venom but without the control to become the true leader, and the attending relaxed sexual behaviour.
  • Traitor – As ever, this is the inverse of the Unexpected Ally so the same thinking applies.

The Writer’s Cry For Help

Here’s the request for more audience participation. If you have some real life and fictional examples of Politicians, please leave a comment or contact me so that I can add them into the lists.

The Women’s Role in Fantasy Fiction Blog Posts

I thought I’d make it easier to jump from post to post so the series is now linked at the bottom of each post. The six posts are:

  1. Women’s Roles in Fantasy Fiction
  2. Women’s Role Models: An Introduction
  3. Women’s Role Models: Ringers
  4. Women’s Role Models: Soldiers
  5. Women’s Role Models: Generals
  6. Women’s Role Models: Politicians (this one)
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3 Responses to Women’s Role Models: Politicians

  1. Dylan Fox says:

    On the subject of Margaret Thatcher, it’s interesting that she took classes to speak with a more ‘masculine’ tone, and her husband cultivated the image of a bumbling gin-fop so that no one would accuse him of really being the one in control. So, yeah, everything changes but stays the same…

    “Every interaction where she gets the better of a man will be considered as intentional manipulation using her sexuality – regardless of whether it was her intelligence or his underestimation.”

    Huh. So true. Fighting that kind of thing is incredibly difficult. Any presentation of a woman using her ‘wiles’ to her own ends is going to get bogged down first in that immediate stereotype, and it can be next to impossible to get them out of it. At least in the reader’s minds, as it’s so deeply ingrained. I think the best you can do is present it as ‘normal’ in the context of the world. Mind you, even that can go pear-shaped. Just look at Firefly. Inara was a car crash of a character…

    Of course, this also runs fowl of the whole, ‘if a woman doesn’t love and is faithful to one man, she is a Bad Woman’ trope.

    “A fictional character should make more logical sense to a reader but that leap isn’t always made in how they’re written.”

    And none of the ‘abused childhood’ stuff to justify a woman being a Bad Woman! A woman doesn’t have to have been raped to be interesting.

    “The difference between either end is usually whether they can claim to be doing what they do for a greater good and how comfortable with their own sexuality the character is.”

    Very true! Would that go better if I stroked my beard while I said it?

    *strokes beard* hm, very true. *puffs on pipe*

    See, I would like to put Princess Leia and Queen/Senator Amidala somewhere on the list, but their roles in their respective trilogies are so underwritten. Leia gets to be a bit of a leader in A New Hope, but then falls into the role of being Han’s love interest. Amidala just… I dunno. I think even calling her a ‘character’ is generous. Star Wars fits in this bracket, doesn’t it? The epic fantasy bracket, I mean? It’s pretty much epic fantasy in space, anyway 🙂

    As always, I’m afraid that I don’t have an abundance of helpful examples. By which I mean that I don’t really have any.

    I think of all the types you’ve gone through, the politician is the one that can be most easily combined with others. Although a character type in their own right, the attributes of the politician can be combined with those of another. A soldier who uses political sense and skill to obtain or maintain rank for example.

    As a character in their own right, I think you’ve got the measure of it when you imply it’s very difficult to write a female politician and still have the reader sympathetic towards them. And it can certainly be done in a modern setting far more easily than one obviously based on a medieval-type world. I think Lady MacBeth has done generations of woman a great disserve in embodying all the very worst attitudes towards women who try and own themselves and use the tools society has provided them with.

  2. Journeymouse says:

    The irony being that Lady MacBeth (as a parallel to her husband’s personality assassination) probably wasn’t the worst woman to get some power in Scotland.

    Oh, and Star Wars counts 🙂

    Anyway, agreed on the overlaps. I think it depends in which category one starts. Like with the well-received artists who were Politicians first, or nuns (Soldiers) who became social leaders (Generals) with plenty of “I am but a weak woman” rhetoric are making use of Politician’s skills. As with everything else in life, there are very few absolutes but people find it easier to deal in them.

    • Dylan Fox says:

      Well, it’s not even as much as people being more comfortable with absolutes. I mean, what you’ve put together is a set of proto-types defined by the roles they fulfil. People like me–who like systems and rules and neat little boxes we can label and move around–can use them to create a character that’s going to fufil a particular function, and then have a kind of secondary set of characterstics for the character. Like the General who uses ‘female wiles’, or the Ringer who uses the force of arms/personality etc to become a General.

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