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Taking Flight, The Throne, Or The Spellbook: The Ways We Process Discomfort Over Women In Power

Scholars, Historians Discuss Lesser-Known Narratives Of Powerful Women


If our cultural and political history is a guide, women in power make some people uncomfortable. People deal with that discomfort in one of two ways: making powerful women out to be villains — witches, demons, succubi, changelings — or erasing them entirely.

The pattern can be seen in ancient Egypt, Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist and author of “When Women Ruled the World,” told WPR’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge” host Anne Strainchamps.

“What happens with women from the ancient world — and this is a pretty basic pattern — (is that) if they’re successful, the credit for that success is taken by another man, one who ruled after them,” Cooney said.

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This means that few of us have heard the names of Egypt’s six successful female pharaohs. Cooney is trying to change that, exploring defaced tombs and monuments to reconstruct a picture of what rule was like under a divinely ordained female leader.

For Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s most successful female rulers whom Cooney described to Strainchamps, it’s meant that not only has she been mostly forgotten — few can even pronounce her name.

“Hatshepsut was the best female king that Egypt had ever seen. She ruled Egypt traditionally, and she left it better than she found it.” Cooney said.

Hatshepsut’s reign, which she shared with her nephew and “co-king,” spanned more than two decades.

“It was a period of great prosperity, there was wealth all around her,” Cooney said. “She was so successful that it was easy for the men after her to take credit for all that she had done.”

After her death, Hatshepsut received the traditional burial of a king. But it only took 20 years — once her nephew had selected his heir and begun thinking about his own legacy — for her former co-ruler to issue orders to erase her name wherever it was written, to smash her statues and claim the success of her rule as his own, Cooney said.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to Egypt — working women in 1980s faced many of the same knee-jerk reactions to their looks, their successes and their drive to achieve what Hatshepsut did.

“I don’t see this changing any time soon, this hostility toward women in power,” Cooney said.

The Politics Of Women In Fiction

As Cooney argues, Hatshepsut was mostly erased from history, so how are memorable powerful women immortalized?

We’re familiar with how they’re usually described because the fiction of Western civilization is packed with powerful women cast as villains — harpies, whores, and witches.

“What’s interesting is how often ‘witch’ and ‘whore’ have walked hand in hand,” said author Madeline Miller. “A whore is what we call a woman who transgresses norms of female sexuality. A witch is almost always about power.”

Miller gave “the witch” extensive thought as she re-imagined the character of one of the original witches in Western literature: Circe, a goddess of sorcery who, in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” turned men into pigs.

“What drew me at first was that mystery: Why is she turning men to pigs? Homer doesn’t tell us,” Miller said. “And the assumption comes to be that it’s because she’s evil, or she’s an irrational woman, or she hates men.”

Circe was denied an interior life or motivation in the original text. In the Middle Ages, she became synonymous with what could happen if a man let his wife have too much power — she’d take your manhood reducing you to a beast, whether figuratively by running your household, or literally transforming you into an animal.

Today, Circe might seem less a villain and more a superhero for the #MeToo moment, Miller said. News of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses had just broken as Miller was finishing writing her novel, which felt especially prescient.

“I’ve always felt very passionately that these myths are relevant, but it really drove the point home,” Miller said of the myths involving Circe.

“As I studied witches and witchcraft and what it meant to be a witch, what it seemed to me is that a witch is a woman who has more power than people think she should have,” Miller said. “And that’s definitely the case with Circe.”

The Circe of Miller’s novel, “Circe,” lives alone on an island surrounded by tame wolves and lions, doing whatever she pleases. She struggles to define who she is in the Greek world, and what her powers mean in relation to her birth — she’s the daughter to the sun god Helios, cousin to Prometheus. It’s a stark contrast to Homer’s Circe, who exists mostly as a figure to be defeated, subdued and capitalized on.

“She has to kneel, and be subdued,” explains Miller. “That’s the heroic male arc: he confronts this woman of power, she has to be put back in her place, and then she becomes benevolent and helps him, and carries him on his way. But [in “The Odyssey”], Circe, like many women, is not given a chance to have her own voice.”

Religious scholar Serenity Young — author of “Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and other Airborne Females” — pointed out dozens of myths throughout human history that conform to a similar pattern. She found images and stories of women with power to fly and connect to the divine clearly represent a threat to the natural human order of things.

“The most ancient things that I found are bird goddesses. They have a bird’s head, a woman’s breast and body, and a little bit of wings. I mean, they go back to the 18th dynasty. They’re all throughout the world,” Young said. “(Men) want this aerial woman, but they want her not to fly. And to be a domestic drudge. These are stories about women who have been captured, and forced into marriages, and having children and cleaning the house.”

They aren’t always depicted as benevolent figures, however — some flying women are vengeful goddesses. But that doesn’t stop Young from admiring them.

“I love them. These are all old goddesses, the old bird goddesses which have to be gotten rid of because they’re terrifying,” Young said. “My favorite are the furies,” female spirits of justice and vengeance.

The politics of these stories aren’t all ancient, however.

The translations into English brought new biases in over the years, which classicists such as Emily Wilson are still trying to untangle in the context of today.

In her own translation of “The Odyssey,” Wilson observed assumptions about characters in Homer’s work — particularly about women who took sexual or political liberties — and analyzed whether those assumptions should have been there in the first place.

“In several modern translations, Telemachus is made to say, ‘I won’t allow a clean death for these sluts, the suitors’ whores.’ It wasn’t a term of abuse in the original — they’re described as women who slept with the suitors,” Wilson said. “Of course that’s a particular cultural assumption — that in order to express anger at a woman, you have to call her a slut, even if the original language doesn’t frame things in those terms.”

Particularly as the classics have become a battleground in our modern day political culture wars, Wilson argues it’s important to allow for nuance and ambiguity in how we interpret what we read. That means not denying the horror of some moments — violence toward women, or the denial of their agency in ancient times — but also not being overly simplistic in what we are to draw from their stories in service of any one political agenda.

Early readings of Homer and other classic texts glorify masculine power at the expense of everything else in the original stories, “which of course relies on a very simplistic reading of the texts, erasing quite a lot of what’s actually there,” Wilson explains.

Wilson argues the stories themselves are not inherently political, but our interpretations of them — both the literal process of translation and the figurative interpretation of character and close reading — can scarcely be separated from our politics.

“There’s always politics (to the art of translation), yes,” Wilson said. “I always think it’s funny that male translators are assumed not to have a political perspective, but of course … this is a political poem, regardless of who’s translating it, and regardless of whether they are male or female, or something else.”

Do Men And Women Need Different Heroes?

These women – historians, theologians, authors, classicists — make a strong case for why these classical and historical stories could be a source of empowerment for women today. These stories have both male and female heroes within them, we just have to bring them both to the fore.

“I think women are held to the impossible standard of having to be perfect, not being allowed to make mistakes,” Miller said of her giving more voice to the inner life of Circe. “The ancient Greek heroes made horrendous mistakes all the time — Odysseus and Achilles are full of flaws, as much as they’re full of virtues and strengths. So I wanted Circe to make mistakes, and be flawed, and to not have the answers. Women should be allowed to be just as messy and complicated as the male heroes have been by right for centuries.”

Young observes that male and female heroes might be different in ways that are disruptive to norms, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable to us.

“The male hero goes forth, he leaves home and has adventure. And he gets involved with a woman — often an aerial woman or a woman with knowledge, a woman who knows the way to the land of the dead. And then they come home,” Young said.

“The flying women? They leave home and keep going,” she said.

These interviews were originally published June 14, 2018 on ttbook.org and was adapted for WPR Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.