top of page
  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

The Sovereignty of Women - Queens, Kings, Hearts, Stomachs, and Exes

In a recent New Yorker article, Jill Lepore comments on the possible success and failure of a female President Clinton. Funny she should mention this. 

My doctoral work on power and gender in sixteenth-century England was inspired by the specter of President Hillary Clinton all the way back in 2004. The idea of a female president seems to challenge the US electorate, or US political media machine, more than in other nations.  Female leadership is as old as male leadership - just not in the US.

Secretary Clinton arriving in Libya

In her essay, Lepore takes the reader back to the rule of Mary I of England a.k.a. Bloody Mary. As Lepore rightly points out, Mary was attacked for being female, but also for being Catholic and a wife.  Elizabeth I followed her half-sister on the throne and was neither Catholic nor married. Elizabeth's refusal to marry and her protestant outlook meant she only had one of Mary's liabilities to contend with - her female body. [Those of you who believe Elizabeth I was a hermaphrodite - let's discuss that another time.]

In her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury on the eve of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth stoutly asserted that although she had the body of a weak and feeble woman, she had the heart and stomach of a king - and a king of England at that. Nascent nationalism claimed that English kings were preferable to any other type. Associating anatomy and nationalism with courage, honor, and military prowess, was a winning strategy for her.  It also helped that God was English and created weather that was harmful to the Spanish and helpful to the English.

Elizabeth I at Tilbury addressing the troops on the eve of the Spanish Armada.

Fortuitously, Ms. Clinton is a Christian. This is a requirement in the political realm, even though founding documents explicitly forbid religious tests as a requirement for office. So much for constitutional literalism in the current climate. She has gained political experience via her husband's career and through her own as a senator and Secretary of State.

Unluckily, Ms. Clinton is still a wife and a mother. Queen Mary I tried for an heir of her body but was physically incapable, experiencing false pregnancies. Ms. Clinton is past the age of child-bearing and has moved into grand-motherhood. But she still has a living husband who is also an ex-President.

Lepore asks "What, then can be expected in the way of attacks on the legitimacy of female rule?" She continues by referencing Natalie Zemon Davis's 1975 essay "Women on Top". That essay draws links between personal and political power and links men's increasing claims of control over female bodies and female property. This has an uncomfortable resonance with current legislative efforts to control women's bodies and the continuing gender pay gap.

Should Clinton become the Democratic nominee, how long will it take before attack ads appear asking if the country wants to give Bill Clinton a third term? I am not suggesting that would happen, merely that Ms. Clinton's husband is easy to cast as a liability, just as Mary I's husband, Phillip II of Spain was a liability in Tudor England. The tyranny of the family is an external force even more than an internal one. If Ms. Clinton were a widow or divorced - SINGLE - her chances of becoming the second President Clinton would improve.

It appears that not much since 16th century England has changed in 21st century America.

[Originally published April 15, 2016]

Recent Posts

See All

The BL was cyber attacked

My intellectual cozy space - threatened in the digital world. When I was working on my doctorate, I spent time at the British Library, a.k.a. the BL. (That’s also their web address: Truth be t

Another book hits the wall

Go to my substack to find out which one Well, here's the first bit . . . This time, it was The Boleyns by Amanda Harvey Purse. I was deceived by the cover blurb quotes from Tracy Borman and Owen Emme


bottom of page