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Hillary - Hard Lessons From History

15/12/2016 15:37
Tom Williams via Getty Images

The fuss, and the fears, are about the future now - what went wrong in the election an abortive squabble. But before we consign the Hillary Clinton story to history, perhaps it's worth considering just how far back the roots of her defeat may lie.

Five hundred years ago we saw another upsurge of women holding power across the western world. The sixteenth century was a veritable Age of Queens, but then it passed away. Just why may have implications for our own day.

A manual of instruction for powerful women published half a millennium ago, by the French regent Anne de Beaujeu, urged caution 'because you can be blamed even for something very slight'. When she wrote her Lessons For My Daughter, Anne was thinking of sexual scandal rather than any other sort of alleged impropriety. But the central point remains. That now as then women are required to maintain a higher standard of behaviour than men, and are forgiven mistakes less readily.

Another of Anne de Beaujeu's maxims urged a woman who planned to wield power first to 'place yourself in the service of a lady who is well regarded, who is constant, and who has good judgement.' She wrote also: 'whatever great alliance you achieve, you must never out of some foolish pride fail to value highly your own ancestors, those from whom you are descended'. She was stressing the importance of what, today we would call sisterhood and one of the charges levelled against Hillary Clinton is that she never demonstrated that, sufficiently.

The charge may be right or it may be wrong - but back in the sixteenth century, it was when religious divisions ruptured the bonds between Europe's women leaders that, with the death of Elizabeth I, this Age of Queens faded away.

But perhaps there is one more hopeful lesson from history - because a tradition of female rule as strong as that seen in Elizabeth's era does not entirely fade away. Russia in the eighteenth century saw an upsurge of powerful women, just as we have been seeing in our own day. Angela Merkel shows no sign of stepping back, and it is easy to name other significant figures, from Christine Lagarde to Theresa May.

Organisations like Emily's List and She Should Run report thousands of women motivated by the misogyny they observed in the US elections to consider running for office themselves. Hillary Clinton after her defeat herself gave notice that the 'highest and hardest' glass ceiling might be shattered sooner than anybody thinks. The question is how, precisely.

Anne de Beaujeu warned that 'you cannot govern too wisely with kindness and diffidence.' Even today, women seeking high office are repeatedly required to prove they have the toughness for the job. They suffer, however, from the difficulty of combining authority with a traditional femininity.

And it's there that the women of the sixteenth century actually had it easier, maybe. It was an accident of birth brought them to power, whether as reigning queens or as regent for an absent or underage male relative. Genealogy trumping gender, you might say.

Point is, that way they never had to come right out and admit to any personal ambition. They could safely lament the labour God and their menfolk had thrust upon them, in forcing them to bear the burden of power. Power which, however, they proved curiously reluctant then to give away.

It wouldn't work, would it, for a candidate today? Even though there's evidence that the spectacle of a woman seeking power is more offensive to many than the sight of a woman actually exercising it. (It's notable that neither of the two women in England currently holding positions of authority, Queen Elizabeth II and Theresa May, who virtually inherited her prime ministership after David Cameron's resignation, had to fight for that position in any real way.) But that's not an option in the American political system - unless, maybe . . .

Unless maybe you'd always declared you didn't want power. Unless you'd made yourself beloved by sheer moral authority. Unless you were forced into the next presidential race by a nation - a whole world! - urging you to take up the burden another woman, exhausted, had laid down . . .

As, let's face it, we will all be urging Michelle Obama. Won't we?

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-
Century Europe
, published by Basic Books in the US and by Oneworld in the UK.

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