As one of history’s most iconic female rulers, Queen Cleopatra is often seen through a lens created for her by society. From Roman historiography, Latin poetry, Renaissance and Baroque art, to Hollywood films and pop music videos, the world has been utterly enthralled by her. What makes her so fascinating? What do the many different images of her tell us about our own society? Has the world’s reaction to powerful women really changed that much?
Horace’s ode 1.37 sums up the world’s views on Cleopatra better than any article I could possibly write, which is hardly surprising given his work has lasted over a thousand years and I’ve been writing this column for a few weeks. She is simultaneously “a maddened queen”, a “deadly monster” and “a gentle dove.” When reading the poem, it’s impossible to tell if Horace is terrified of her or admires her – frankly, I think it’s a bit of both. There is nothing quite as captivating as a powerful woman.
Yet, strong, independent women are often picked apart in a variety of different ways. A personal favourite is when strong women are called intimidating. After all, there’s nothing more scary than an outspoken woman with opinions, right? Strong women are not scary, they are formidable. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most influential American lawmakers in history, was only 5’1” and yet she was a force to be reckoned with. Being both powerful and a lady are not mutually exclusive attributes. The Notorious RBG was the epitome of that fact; “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”
A key way that women, and particularly women in power, are belittled is by increased scrutiny on their appearance. This scrutiny far exceeds the levels experienced by their male counterparts. We are told we must ‘dress the part’, but what exactly does that mean? It’s like the whole ‘smart casual’ issue, but much, much worse. If you wear a pared back pant-suit, you’re boring, but if you wear something more feminine, it’s unprofessional and you won’t be taken seriously. Women in power are made to feel like they operate in a man’s world, and are pressured to give up some of their femininity as a result. You can’t easily picture a female Prime Minister in a floral dress, can you?
Take Britain’s two female Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. You may not agree with their politics, but both women were subject to intense levels of scrutiny and pressured to fit a certain mold. Thatcher was taught how to make the pitch of her voice lower, because she would be taken more seriously as a result (in no small part, I’m sure, to the fact that the lower your voice the more you sound like a man). Theresa May’s shoes, on the other hand, were the subject of great debate. When she came to visit The Oxford Union last year, she told a story about how she happened to ride a lift with a young woman in the Parliament buildings who said to her ‘Your shoes are the reason I got into politics’. Putting aside how you may feel about Theresa May, or the Union, she candidly and humorously addressed the fact that she is no stranger to being the only woman in a room full of men, noting how when she was a member of the Union as a student it was seven men to every woman, ‘not that I was complaining’ (cue silence while the room tried to work out if our ex-Prime Minister really did just make that joke).
Oh and let’s talk about that Daily Mail headline;
Because, of course, when two political leaders sit down to discuss one of the most important issues of the time, let’s focus instead on their legs. My favourite part of this headline, however, is the idea of “stilettos at dawn.” Stiletto heels are actually named after the thin Italian dagger, a stiletto, funnily enough. Take my word for it, a stiletto heel can be used as a weapon if needs must, so “stilettos at dawn” is no laughing matter.
The paradox of this heightened scrutiny is that women feel that they must strip back their femininity in order to be taken seriously, and are then criticised for appearing too masculine. It’s that time-old adage, you can’t be both smart and pretty (ladies, I say ‘oh yeah, watch us be both’). My personal hero for breaking this mold is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She talks about how there’s a “false idea that… if you care about makeup and skincare that’s somehow frivolous”. When AOC was sworn in to Congress, she wore a white pantsuit, red lip and hoop earrings, tweeting “Lip+hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-coloured nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red. Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.” What might seem like a simple accessory has huge implications. In Horace’s poem, it is implied that Cleopatra’s most desirable traits are those which are more masculine. She chose the ‘manly’ option to commit suicide, and “showed no womanish fear at the sword”. I can only speak for myself, but the bravest people I know are women.
Women are pushing back against the boxes we are pressured into. Take Jessica Ardern, current Prime Minister of New Zealand; not only did she have a baby whilst in office, but she has also led one of the most successful handlings of the Coronavirus pandemic, and she has the highest approval ratings of any New Zealand Prime Minister, ever. That’s one thing that Horace does convey well, that women are not two dimensional. We are complex. As AOC says, “there is power in femininity.” Cleopatra could have been all that we have imagined her to be over the years; powerful, ruthless, beautiful, brave, intelligent, and she could have been all of them at the same time. Let Queen Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, serve as a reminder and an inspiration to us all that women can and should hold positions of power. Let her be an example that women do not need to check boxes to belong.