Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Hillary and history: how powerful women have been maligned through the ages

The 2016 United States presidential election has been perhaps the most contentious contest in recent history. Some of the gendered stereotypes deployed in it, however, are nothing new. Powerful and outspoken women have been maligned for thousands of years. Ancient authors considered the political arena to be the domain of men, and chastised women who came to power. Correspondingly, ancient Greek authors considered intelligence, courage, and outspokenness to be characteristics of men. Yet such traits were noted in women, women who were called masculine by some of the same authors.

In Greek tragedy, when Clytemnestra, the queen of Argos, killed her husband in revenge for his murder of their daughter, Iphigenia, her actions were called “monstrous.” Only a century later, Aristotle wrote that it was nobler for a man to take vengeance on his enemies than to reconcile with them. Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander III the Great, who followed Aristotle’s advice upon his accession to the throne of ancient Macedonia. He had those who rebelled against his authority, or, at least, were alleged to have done so, killed. Alexander’s “cleaning house” included the execution of his cousin, Amyntas. Alexander also achieved revenge for the Greeks, by avenging the Persian invasion of Greece some 150 years earlier with his own invasion and conquest of Persia. While Alexander would be called “the Great” for his exploits, his excessive use of force has raised the eyebrows of very few historians, and only recently at that.

Some six years after Alexander’s untimely death, his mother, Olympias, came to power as the regent for her grandson, Alexander IV. When Olympias killed her son’s alleged murderers in revenge, in addition to other enemies, she was not held to the same standard as Alexander had been. The historian Justin wrote that she had acted “more like a woman than a ruler.” Olympias has been gauged as instituting a reign of terror by ancient and modern historians alike, whereas her son was and is still called “the Great.” Both mother and son engaged in the same behavior: eliminating their rivals upon acceding to power. Yet history has judged them by different standards.

Hillary Clinton speaking at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum at Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, 11 January 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Hillary Clinton speaking at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum at Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, 11 January 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The same can be said for the queens and kings of the Ptolemaic family. The Ptolemies became the rulers of Egypt after Alexander the Great’s conquest of that land. Ptolemaic queens became very powerful, and one in particular, Cleopatra VII, has left her mark emblazoned upon the ravages of time itself. Cleopatra VII took the same prerogatives as her male counterparts; she chose her own consorts, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and she eliminated several rivals who just happened to be her siblings, Arsinoë IV, a sister who had usurped Cleopatra’s throne and openly declared war upon her, and Ptolemy XIV, a younger brother who may have done so as well. Cleopatra had both of her siblings killed to preserve herself. Cleopatra’s actions were not unlike those of her male predecessors. Her ancestor, King Ptolemy IV, for example, killed his own brother, Magas, and his mother, Berenice II, upon his accession to the throne. He was then dominated by his mistress, Agathocleia, and her brother, as well as other unsavory ministers at whose hands he himself was killed. Cleopatra was a far more successful monarch in many respects. She was ultimately defeated by Augustus, but she managed to stave off the Romans, an invincible power, for seventeen years, whereas Ptolemy IV could not even stave off his own courtiers. Yet, instead of being given credit for her skills, Cleopatra is ‘diagnosed’ as having had “histrionic personality disorder with psychopathic tendencies.” Cleopatra’s sexuality lies at the center of such accusations. According to WebMD, one who has histrionic personality disorder may tend to “dress provocatively and/or exhibit inappropriately seductive or flirtatious behavior.” Was it inappropriate for Cleopatra to seduce Julius Caesar or Mark Antony to save her country from the onslaught of Roman legions? She is not recorded as having sexual encounters with any other than these two men, and each of her seductions began with political motives.

By the same token, was Cleopatra exhibiting tendencies of psychopathy when she ordered the death of her sister, Arsinoë IV, who had openly rebelled against her? Was Cleopatra demonstrating mental instability when she eliminated her brother Ptolemy XIV? Perhaps it would be better to simply note that Cleopatra killed Ptolemy XIV before he could attain majority and eliminate her. Cleopatra did the same things as countless other male monarchs. Yet she is still singled out as a psychopath rather than given credit for being a capable individual. Cleopatra was a woman in power, who knew how to stay in power.

While it may seem that we have advanced a million miles from the misogyny of our ancient counterparts, in some ways, nothing has changed at all. When Hilary Clinton used a private server for public business, or deleted emails from that server, she apparently did nothing that her male predecessors in previous administrations had not done. Yet she has been singled out as a “criminal,” whereas one never hears this of former male US leaders who took similar actions. While I wish neither to condone nor criticize the actions of any US presidential candidate, it is nonetheless important to insist, as November 8 approaches, that women in power no longer be treated by a double standard. As the world watches US citizens cast their ballots, it is my hope that US voters will bypass misogyny and make an informed choice.

Featured image credit: Painting of Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse, c.1887. Photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Debbie Lou

    Brilliant! Thank you Prof. Penrose for this analysis.

Comments are closed.