As you are more than likely aware, the U.S. presidential election is now only a week away. Some recent articles have address Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Elizabeth Warren. However, I’ve been thinking a bit about Hillary and Elizabeth I, and the ways each constructs her own authority in relation to gender. Specifically, I’ve been wondering why this sentence still sounds so relevant:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king…
These words, reportedly spoken by Elizabeth at Tilbury on 9 August 1588, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, almost sum up the rhetorical challenges Hillary has faced since her first bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Sixteenth-century Europe had an unprecedented number of female rulers. Elizabeth had, of course, been preceded by her sister Mary I, and their cousin Mary Stuart ruled Scotland until 1568. Mary of Guise and Catherine de Medici, though not queens regnant, exercised royal power too. Nevertheless, female rule was not universally popular, and critics made their displeasure known in printed tracts like John Knox ‘s The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (1558) and John Aylmer’s Harborow for faithful subjects (1559).
Not content simply to describe these queens as an undifferentiated bunch of “nasty women,” Aylmer distinguished between two major categories:
not suche as some women be, wiser, better learned, discreater, constanter, then a number of men: but such as women be of the vvurst sort, fond, folish, wanton, flibergibbes, tatler, triflers, wauering, witles, without counsell, feable, careles, rashe, proude, deintie, nise, talebearers, euesdropers, rumor raisers, euell tonged, worse minded, and in euery wise, doltefied with the dregges of the Deuils dounge hill, as these minions be: such shall your senatoures and rulers be, that shallbe neither hable to rule them selfes nor you. (sig. G3v)
Even so, it seems every queen—and each of her female contemporaries—has had to work overtime to prove that she’s in the former category rather than the latter. Furthermore, although Elizabeth I was well-liked, her subjects also invoked her gender in expressing their discontent towards the end of her reign. The DNB cites Godfrey Goodman, bishop of Gloucester, who “remembered that ‘the people were very generally weary of an old woman’s government.'”
Like her early modern predecessors, Hillary has also had to deal with received ideas about women’s roles. While Hillary spent decades in the public eye before ever pursuing an office of her own, she was always ambitious, and this didn’t always sit well. Famously, during Bill’s first presidential run, she remarked, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Although her point seems clear—and fair!—enough, the Yale-trained lawyer was widely accused of belittling traditional notions of American womanhood. (By the bye, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that Barack Obama met his future wife, then Michelle Robinson, because he was interning at her law firm and she was assigned to mentor him.) Although Hillary carried out her traditional duties as First Lady, some found her interest in public policy off-putting and inappropriate.
After Bill left office in 2000, Hillary was able to begin her own political career in earnest. She has spent the last sixteen years walking a very fine line, first as a senator and then as a two-time presidential candidate. Donna Brazile has written that Hillary “[spent] much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman.” This time, she’s taken a different tack, and in her Twitter bio, she describes herself as “Wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator, SecState, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate.”
She’s embracing all of her multiple, overlapping familial and public roles, and having a bit of fun with it too. In other words, she seems to have shifted to the strategy Mary Beth Rose identified in Elizabeth’s speeches: “Her goal in public rhetoric is not limited to the appropriation of masculine prestige; rather, she seeks to occupy and to monopolize all dominant gendered subject positions” (1081)
While I love that she’s happy to call herself a “pantsuit aficionado,” it’s hard not to think that it’s not, at least in part, an effort to preempt concern that she doesn’t have a “presidential look.” (The Washington Post had some helpful suggestions.) And they do get a lot of attention, both serious and not-so-serious. But clothes are an important part of a leader’s self-presentation, perhaps doubly so for a female leader, whose physical presence, voice, and laugh all seem to be disconcerting to at least part of the public. Elizabeth surely realized this, too, dressing in sumptuous clothes and elaborate makeup. Susan Frye has shown that while “[n]o reliable eyewitness account exists of what Elizabeth I wore or said” at Tilbury, historians and commentators have seemed almost fixated on her physical appearance there, sometimes putting her in armor, or, in a fictional 1983 version, a white velvet gown, which seems terribly impractical for the battlefield.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the strategies both of these women use to fashion their public personae, and there are countless other comparisons that would be at least as apt (if less timely). And I’m sure many of you are sick to death of the U.S. election at this point; I’m with you. But to conclude, I’d like to consider one more example. Rose has argued, “In her speeches Elizabeth often constructs her authority as a dialogue, involving reciprocity between her subjects and her” (1081). And while it makes intuitive sense that leaders would represent the relationship between their authority and that of the governed in a democracy, the speech Hillary made upon accepting the Democratic nomination acknowledges a different kind of reciprocity:
This is really your victory. This is really your night. And if there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say I may become the first woman President. But one of you is next.
Only 463 years after England got its first female queen in Mary I, and 458 years after Elizabeth’s accession, the United States might have its first woman president. Here’s hoping that when that “highest, hardest glass ceiling” is finally shattered, we can find some new ways to talk about women in leadership roles.
Works cited and consulted:
Aylmer, Robert. An harborovve for faithfull and trevve subiectes agaynst the late blowne blaste, concerninge the gouernme[n]t of vvemen. wherin be confuted all such reasons as a straunger of late made in that behalfe, with a breife exhortation to obedience. EEBO STC 1005. London: J. Day, 1559.
Elizabeth I. Collected Works. Eds. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Frye, Susan. “The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury.” Sixteenth Century Journal 1992 (23): 95–114.
Green, Janet M. “‘I My Self’: Queen Elizabeth I’s Oration at Tilbury Camp.” Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1997): 421–45.
Knox, John. The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women. EEBO STC 15070. Geneva: J. Poullain and A. Rebul, 1558.
Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Rose, Mary Beth. “The Gendering of Authority in the Public Speeches of Elizabeth I.” PMLA 115 (2000): 1077–82.