. . . you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks . . .
—Joni Mitchell, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”
Hillary Clinton is far from the first strong woman in public life to be slandered relentlessly by her political opponents and those offended by feminine leadership. Let us take a brief tour.
Wu Zetian (624 – 705) was the only female emperor of China. Despite being a strong ruler who governed well, her reputation as a scheming, ruthless woman willing to do anything to gain and keep power overwhelmed her accomplishments.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204) was Queen of France, then Queen of England, and the mother of three kings of England. She was highly educated, and played an important role in the political and military struggles during the latter part of Henry II’s reign as King of England. In the popular imagination, however, her reputation was formed by fanciful stories of her leading a group of decadent nobles in scandalous sexual practices, and a vicious rumor that she had murdered one of Henry’s mistresses.
Isabeau of Bavaria (1370 – 1435) became Queen of France at the age of fifteen when she married Charles VI. Caught up in vicious power struggles when Charles’s mental illness left him unable to rule, Queen Isabeau was accused of about every crime possible, including adultery and witchcraft. This reputation lasted until 20th-century historians reviewed the evidence and discovered that she was intelligent, well-educated, pious, devoted to her children, and an effective ruler in her husband’s place.
Catherine de Medici (1519 – 1589) was Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and played a leading role in the Byzantine power struggles among the French nobility during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Though clearly no better or worse than the Bourbons and Guises and other rivals for power, Catherine—as not only a woman but a foreigner, being the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici of Florence—got most of the blame for a host of poisonings, assassinations, and political back-stabbings.
Catherine the Great (1729-96) ruled Russia for more than thirty years. Compared with other Russian emperors, she was clearly above average as a reformer and a supporter of Enlightenment ideals. Like her male counterparts, she took lovers, but the stories told about her falsely accused her not just of licentiousness, but of perversion. These slanders culminated in the rumor that she died from a stroke suffered while attempting to have sexual intercourse with a stallion.
Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835 -1908) was a remarkable woman who began her imperial career as a lowly concubine but ended up as the mother of the heir to the throne and, as Regent, the nominal ruler of China for decades. Surrounded by powerful factions in a dying empire, Cixi successfully navigated among them but was slandered as vicious, sexually perverse, manipulative, extravagant, power-hungry, and so on.
So is Hillary the devious, lying, scheming, ambitious, ruthless harridan that the Republicans say she is? Sure. And do you know the story of the servant girl that Cixi murdered by throwing her down a well?