If our cultural and political history is a guide, women in power make us uncomfortable. We deal with that discomfort in one of two ways: making powerful women out to be villains — witches, demons, succubi, changelings — or erasing them entirely.
"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," says Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist and author of the forthcoming "Women Who Ruled the World." 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 king. For Hatshepsut — one of Egypt's most successful female rulers, whom Cooney described to Anne Strainchamps for To The Best Of Our Knowledge, 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." says Cooney. 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. She was so successful that it was easy for the men after her to take credit for all that she had done," Cooney says.
After her death, Hatshepsut received the traditional burial of a king. But it only took twenty 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.
It's not a phenomenon unique to Egypt—working women in 1980s powersuits faced many of the same knee jerk reactions to their looks, their successes and their drive to achieve that Hatshepsut did. "I don't see this changing any time soon, this hostility toward women in power," says Cooney.
The Politics of Women in Fiction
Hatshepsut was mostly erased from history. So how are the 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 most of all, a word that pops up in all sorts of conversations about women in power: witches.
"What's interesting is how often 'witch' and 'whore' have walked hand in hand," says 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. 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, literally (or figuratively) reducing you to a beast.
Today, Circe might seem less a villain and more a superhero for the #MeToo moment. "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," says Miller. "And that's definitely the case with Circe."
The Circe of Miller's novel 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 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. Images and stories of women with power to fly and connection to the divine, clearly represent a threat to the natural human order of things, she found.
"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," says Young. "[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."
Ever noticed how often we see figures of women flying, or with wings? Religion scholar Serenity Young became obsessed with one in particular, and then started seeing them everywhere. https://t.co/ff7RuNkFwZ pic.twitter.com/rw1fV1axzt— TTBOOK (@TTBOOK) June 9, 2018
They aren't always depicted as benevolent figures, however — many flying women are vengeful goddesses from on high. But that doesn't stop Young from admiring them.
"Oh yes, I love them! I love them. These are all old goddesses, the old bird goddesses which have to be gotten rid of — because they're terrifying. My favorite are the furies [female spirits of justice and vengeance]," says Young.
The politics of these stories aren't all ancient, however. The translations into English brought new biases in over the years, which classicists like 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 they 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," says Wilson. "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 that 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 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.
"There are fantasy readings of Homer and of other Greek and Roman classics which involve an idealizing ... back in ancient times, rape was fine, masculinity was all about being very macho, and everyone thought that was perfect back then," explains Wilson. "Which of course relies on a very simplistic reading of the texts, erasing quite a lot of what's actually there."
Wilson argues that 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. I always think it's funny that male translators are assumed not to have a politics, 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," says Miller, 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 says.
"The flying women? They leave home and keep going."