The Isabel Capet Syndrome

Another of the things that “everyone knows that just ain’t so” is the paucity of female rulers in history. In fact there were quite a lot. Of course, they are found primarily where women become rulers by marriage or inheritance, so that they are plentiful only in hereditary systems. Women were not, for example, elected Doge of Venice. This conflict between modern democratic principles and the common modern thirst to see women rulers at any cost, no matter how they became so and how competent they were, is rarely commented upon. This is perhaps because that unconditional thirst only makes sense to those who believe that a woman will inevitably be a better ruler than a man, because she is by nature a better person; and not everyone is prepared to own up to this sexist attitude.

In addition to this evasion, the waters are muddied further by the device of downplaying the number of female rulers in hereditary polities with reference to the opposition they faced. Of course all rulers face opposition, so that making grumbling about female rulers into proof of misogyny is like making women’s catching the common cold into proof of brutal patriarchal oppression. The question is whether people were always dismissive of a woman ruler because she was female. Now, where military leadership is important, gender is always a concern. A few women were themselves gifted generals, but the usual procedure was to have her marry one. Should she refuse, or insist on marrying a handsome moron for his body (Sibylla of Jerusalem, I’m looking at you), she will indeed have a problem; but then so will a militarily ineffective male. There is little evidence for an objection in principle to a woman as a peacetime administrator. On the contrary, throughout history everybody accepted that women could manage anything from a household to an empire. After all, they generally did manage almost everything, whether they had the legal authority or not, and whether their menfolk realised it or not.

The notion of opposition to female rulers as such is greatly aided by the dishonest device of seeing this prejudice in every case of a given female ruler or would-be ruler being disliked and feared as an individual. Now this was common enough, though probably not a whit more common than a male ruler being feared or disliked as an individual. It only becomes peculiar if we add the concealed assumption that no woman can possibly earn her fear or dislike by her qualities of character and the choices she makes. In some milieus this assumption is so universal that the way is then clear for a circularity: the ruler must have been a good and worthy person because the only possible reason for not wanting her in charge was misogyny; and it can only be misogyny that makes people worried about her poor impulse control, filthy temper and tendency to entrust the kingdom’s treasury to anyone who gives her a big enough orgasm. (Of course the same applies to the predatory “favourites” of a gay king; but now we must call this homophobia rather than concern for governance. The point is that any ruler, of whatsoever gender, orientation or number of tentacles, simply must keep the snouts of his/her/its sexual partners, friends and relatives out of the trough, or else there will be trouble.)

The funny thing here is that resistance to the very possibility that a given female individual in history might have been hated for the way she acted ought normally to be classified as denial of female agency; our petulant princess is here being considered as a victim and not as an actor in her own right, attracting the consequences of her own choices.

Posted on January 30, 2014 at 11:55 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting Medieval, Miscellaneous

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