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Crested v Cloven - The Great Debates

It may be the most important tv of our times - the debates many desperately hope will halt Donald Trump's remorseless tramp towards the White House. And though we don't, in advance, know all the words of the song, we can surely hum the refrain.

It's a safe bet Hillary Clinton will be attacked on points relating to her gender. It would be a safe bet even were she up against an opponent less open to charges of misogyny than Donald Trump. It was ever this way - 'gad I been crested not cloven, my lords, you would not have treated me thus', Elizabeth I told her courtiers, angrily. The attacks on female leaders (and maybe, just maybe, their strengths, too) have taken the same forms through history.

Clinton is almost certain to be challenged on the issue of her health. Debate about women leaders has always centred on their bodies. Even Elizabeth I's famous speech at Tilbury admitted that she had 'the body of a weak and feeble woman', before boasting that she had nonetheless 'the heart and stomach of a king'. An ability to bear children, or a perceived failure to do so, was the great issue for the Virgin Queen, almost five centuries before it became the most controversial factor in the leadership contest between Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May.

Just occasionally, of course, that focus on the physical can be useful. Hillary Clinton once declared that if she wanted to knock a story off the front page, all she had to do was change her hairstyle. A technique for the tv debates, maybe? Elizabeth I wielded her spectacular wardrobe very successfully.

Elizabeth's century saw an explosion of female rule across Europe - not only in England and Scotland, where a ruling queen sat on the throne, but in the Netherlands, France and Spain, where female regents controlled great swathes of the continent on behalf of their male relatives. It was in the time and the territory of another queen regnant, Isabella of Castile, that the queen in the game of chess acquired the powers we know today.

But if the sixteenth century showed what women could do, it also showed how vulnerable they could be. Anne Boleyn executed for adultery she almost certainly did not commit; Catherine de Medici getting most of the blame for the Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day. Be very careful in all your dealings, a manual of advice for powerful women warned, 'because you can be blamed even for something very slight'. (The manual was written by Anne de Beaujeu, who herself governed France during the minority of her brother.) Clinton is bound to be attacked over the matter of her emails, and perhaps other dealings in the past: the question is not whether they qualify as something 'very slight', but whether a man could be blamed as readily, Men, and a powerful woman's relationship to them, was a question then and is still today. As Catherine de Medici told Elizabeth I, it was always through her sexuality that a woman could best be attacked. 'Not one on a thousand escapes without her honour being attacked or deceived, however "good" or "true" her love', Anne de Beaujeu warned her readers. 'Therefore, for the greatest certainty in such situations, I advise you to avoid all private meetings, no matter how pleasant they are . . . '. Though there have been allegations of an extra-marital affair made even against Hillary Clinton, they don't form the spearhead of attacks against her. More pressing, perhaps, is the question of a consort. Fear of a husband's takeover was what kept Queen Elizabeth unmarried, and there could be eyebrows raised over the likelihood of Bill Clinton's confining himself to a backseat role as America's first 'First Laddie'.

Women have long been seen as naturally more pacific than men, and sometimes that works to their advantage. As when, in 1529, Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy negotiated the so-called Ladies' Peace; as, perhaps, when a President Hillary Clinton might negotiate with Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, or Theresa May.

One slur often levelled, however, is that women may therefore fail in times of war - and sometimes women have seemed even to agree. Mary of Hungary, resigning her post as regent of the Netherlands in 1555, lamented that 'as a woman I was compelled to leave the conduct of war to others'. It shouldn't be such a problem now that no ruler is expected to 'in person enter the battle' - but a faltering finger on the nuclear button was certainly one concern raised, by George Bush among others, when America contemplated a vice-president Geraldine Ferraro. 'You must clearly see that you cannot govern too wisely with kindness and diffidence', Anne de Beaujeu warned her female readers.

But the biggest problem for any woman, going into an encounter like the Trump/Clinton debates, is perhaps an invidious one. Clinton has been advised not to interrupt or talk over Trump too much - because voters don't like such behaviour in a woman. Fine for him to interrupt her, presumably.

As the debates hot up, perhaps even Clinton may need another piece of advice from Anne de Beaujeu. 'Be slow and cool in all your responses because, as wise men say, on some subjects a reply cannot be avoided.' But she may, alas, have cause also to remember the trouble she had many years ago, when she said she was not 'some little woman' standing by her man, and seemed to distance herself from ordinary wives. Even Queen Elizabeth's closest minister described her as 'more than a man - and in truth sometimes less than a woman'. The question of how to combine femininity with authority has never gone away.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, published by Oneworld on October 6.

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