by Andy Langton
The British monarchy is a constitutional one and as such its political power is limited. Likewise following the First World War the British monarch’s role was reduced to one of cultural diplomacy. It is perhaps because of these two reasons that of all the imperial monarchies in Europe at the start of 1914 only Britain’s survived the First World War. Therefore, is Elizabeth II’s ability to rule without sharing power an indication of changing attitudes towards women, or merely due to it being a cultural role with limited political powers? When looking critically at how women in positions of authority are treated in other areas of society (such as the gender pay gap) the answer appears to be the latter. This shouldn’t be surprising though as history has numerous examples of misogyny when it comes to royal authority.
Hatshepsut is perhaps the best example of a true female ruler of Egypt. She shared power with her husband Thutmose II (also her half-brother), even taking on some of his responsibilities when he was unable to perform them. She then became regent to Thutmose III (the son of a concubine not Hatshepsut). Eventually Hatshepsut took on more responsibilities than a regent should and ruled Egypt in her own right, even claiming the title Pharaoh. Hatshepsut modelled herself as a king rather than a queen. Her choice to be a ‘king’ rather than rule as a queen offers an insight into the political role of females in ancient Egypt. The political role of a queen is unclear, usually being referred to incidentally, or in relation to her role alongside her more important husband. Clearly queens could act as regents to young male heirs and they could execute authority on behalf of their husband. Hatshepsut performed both of these roles yet still saw it as necessary to portray herself as a king in order to rule alone. Her statues show her dressed as a man and wearing male clothing – her temple at Deir el-Bahri depicts her as the rightful heir and offspring of Amun, both usually associated with male rulers. Hatshepsut’s reign was successful, promoting peace, expanding trade routes and providing economic growth. Yet, despite these successes, after her death there was a systematic attempt to erase her from history. Her name was chiselled off inscriptions and her monuments attributed to others. Clearly to ancient Egyptians these successes could not be seen to have been achieved by a woman.
Another famous female ruler is Elizabeth I of England, one the most famous English queens. Yet perhaps the most often quoted fact of her reign is that she never married. The question as to why she never married has been pondered for 400 years. Even during her lifetime this decision was questioned and seen as dangerous. Ultimately her decision not to marry ended a dynasty and set the country on a course that would lead to civil war. There are solid political reasons for Elizabeth’s decision – by not marrying a foreign prince she could ensure England’s independence and avoid foreign influence on internal policy. However, there were plenty of eligible English peers that she could have married. Perhaps Elizabeth’s decision is more a reflection on the mindset of 16th century Europe. The sovereign held dominion over their subjects, yet a husband held dominion over his wife. Therefore, if Elizabeth ever did marry her husband would automatically become king and claim royal authority for himself. One way Elizabeth could ensure her continued sovereign authority was to remain unmarried. How much influence her experiences of growing up and seeing her father’s clearly misogynistic attitude to marriage had on her decision is up for debate. What is clear though is that by remaining unmarried Elizabeth maintained her own sovereignty at the risk of her dynasty.
These are just two brief examples of how misogynistic attitudes may have impacted upon the reign and legacy of female rulers. There are many more: from the civil war in England known as The Anarchy (1135-1153), fought due to barons not accepting Henry I’s decision that his daughter would rule after his death, to Princess Anne being constantly pushed down the line of succession when her younger brothers were born.
Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh – Joyce Tyldesley
The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt – Kara Cooney
Elizabeth the Queen – Alison Weir
About the Author:
Andrew (Andy) Langton teaches Access to HE (adult education for those wanting to go to uni but haven’t got A-levels). Andy completed a history degree in 2010 then a PGCE in 2011, as well as a Masters in Military History at the University of Birmingham (this year).
He’s interested in a wide range of historical topics but focused on the FWW for my Masters. Andy is also interested in some of the lesser-known aspects of history (his masters dissertation focused on the pre trench Western Front of 1914). And obviously also interested in women and their representation in history.