Power or femininity: Why can’t women have both?

Masculine, assertive, dominant – these are the words that have become synonymous with power in our culture. By consequence, femininity is often viewed as passive, emotional and weak. A study into how powerful women have utilised gender over time offers a fascinating insight into the nature of power in our society, and the obstacles women are expected to circumvent in order to acquire it.

Perhaps the most iconic example of female leaders adopting masculine traits in their pursuit of power comes in the form of the Egyptian pharaohs. Most women hoping to become a pharaoh would have to completely disguise themselves as a man. It is often difficult for historians to decipher the gender of pharaohs since essentially all tombs speak of the great kings and use only masculine pronouns. Hatshepsut, one of the most famous female pharaohs, wore the traditionally male headdress, complete with a beard and muscles.

Any examples of women in power that continue to utilise their femininity often have their power devalued. If we look back to Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra perhaps contradicts the hypothesis of women adopting masculine elements to gain power. Yet, the over-sexualisation of her legacy must be acknowledged. Cleopatra has not been remembered for her political skill, but largely as a ‘temptress’ who gained power and corrupted the Romans by using ‘her inconceivable sexual allure’, with many late antique writers referring to her as a prostitute. As Mackinnon puts it, feminine power is a ‘contradiction’ socially speaking.

As the first Queens of England, both Mary I and Elizabeth I also struggled to assert their authority in spite of their gender. Considering queenship ideologically opposed the traditionally masculine nature of authority, both women played into masculine notions and behaviour. In her famous Tilbury speech in 1588, Elizabeth emphasised she had ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. Her closest advisors also frequently referred to her as ‘king like’ and ‘princely’. Both queens also used strong men to act as their ‘kingly personas’. Notably, Mary’s husband Philip provided a positive and stabilising influence at court to counter contemporary prejudices concerning a potentially hysterical Mary.

The need to play into masculine stereotypes of power permeates beyond just the monarchy. As the first female UK Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher faced considerable opposition to her position. To counter this, Thatcher was frequently portrayed in a masculine manner. She even had her voice trained in order to lower her naturally high pitched voice as a way to ‘communicate with authority’. Studying Hillary Clinton during the 2016 US election reveals a similar situation. As Jennifer Jones has researched, Clinton was noted to have used less social, emotional, cognitive and tentative words, purposefully acting more firm and distant in her answers.

Many female authors have even purposely adopted more gender neutral or masculine sounding names in order to publish and circulate their works to wider audiences. Charlotte Bronte used the pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’ and J.K Rowling was specifically asked to use initials rather than her first name (Joanne) for the Harry Potter series ‘so that her gender was less obvious’. Both in the past and the present therefore, femininity evidently exists as an obstacle to legitimate power.

It is perhaps more understandable why women in the distant past adopted masculine notions or even disguised themselves as men. These women had physical obstacles hindering their ability to acquire power had they maintained their femininity. Why then do modern women continue to hide or downplay their own femininity?

The real issue lies with a woman’s inability to separate her gender from how she is perceived. The gender of a man in power is rarely commented on. Yet, for a woman, her gender is typically a major talking point. For example, while Theresa May’s entrance into office could have provoked an interesting debate within the media regarding the changing nature of politics, significant debate was instead had regarding her shoes and clothes (such as her infamous leopard print heels), and her lack of children. To distance herself from her own femininity is a woman’s attempt to be taken seriously within her field.

While phrases like ‘the future is female’ continue to be purloined in the media, it is important to consider the nature of this femininity. More women are rightly entering positions of power in politics and the corporate world, but these women are evidently having to contort and downplay their own perceptions of womanhood in order to pursue power. The same cannot be said for their male peers. While the future may be female, it is certainly not feminine.








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