Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ms Farquharson's Question: On the Lionesses Seen and Unseen

Ms Wycliffe Farquharson of the Great State of North Carolina writes:

For the most part, throughout history, it has been men who are remembered for accomplishing great things. This was clearly the outcome of social and political limitations, but yet, the idea that "Behind every great man is a great woman," seems to be popular. Is this truth or a catchy song lyric?

Well, honestly this is a tough one to answer.  Certainly a lot of great political leaders were married, and many others maintained long-term relationships over much or all of their adult life.  But, certainly a lot of political leaders were never married or in such relationships or, perhaps more frequently due to the pressures to conform, were in relationships but did not share their political "work" life with their significant others.  And, of course, in the majority of relationships we simply have no record of how much influence one partner had over another. 

Observations I feel confident making, however, include the following:

(1) Outright partners, openly sharing in influence, decision-making, and rule are a recurring theme in history far more commonly than we often imagine.

ex. Theodora and Justinian I - see The Guardian's "Theodora: the empress from the brothel"

ex. Isabella and Ferdinand - see the Catholic Encyclopedia's "Isabella I"

(2) Shadow partners, in the terms of spouses and significant others clearly deserve more credit than they typically recieve in many cases; this means that a great number of women helped develop ideas with their spouses, even though (due to norms of their times) they were typically prevented from receiving credit OR their spouse feared revealing their influence would undermine their status, etc.

ex. John and Abigail Adams - see their letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society's electronic collection of Adams family papers

(2) Shadow partners have sometimes not merely been partners in the conventional sense, but the partner in the shadow has sometimes effectively exercised the power formally bestowed on their spouse or lover (or even other relatives, such as mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters).

ex. Eleanor of Aquitaine - see Wikipedia's article

ex. The Empress Dowager Cixi - see Smithsonian's article "Cixi: The Woman Behind the Throne"

(3) Women have exercised political office effectively and definitively on their own or as formally senior partners in relationships many times in history and the frequency with which they are doing so is on the increase - radically.

ex. Elizabeth I - see the British Monarchy's site on the History of the Monarchy "Elizabeth I"

ex. Catherine the Great - see Biography and NPR's "Catherine the Great: First She Read, Then She Ruled"

(4) Women have always been critical to the formation of rebellions, conspiracies, revolutions, and reform movements and will continue to be so in the future - though increasingly (again) more sung of than in the past.

ex. The Trung Sisters - see Marc Jason Gilbert's "When Heroism is Not Enough"

ex. Tawakul Karman - see The Independent's article "Tawakul Karman: 'We brought down a tyrant.  Now we need the West to keep him out."

Also, check out Women Who Ruled - just for the fantasticness.

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