Next Tuesday is the one hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day. As the old cigarette ads had it, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby!’ and yes, it’s true. Thanks to Virginia Slims and their like, rates of lung cancer amongst women are now reaching parity with those of men.
In other areas, however, we’ve still got a way to go. No other Prime Minister, I think, has been berated by talk show host Alan Jones in quite the way that Julia Gillard was, a few days ago, and I can’t help wondering whether the ex-rugby coach felt he could bully a woman more than he would – say – an iron man with an Oxford blue for boxing.
Meanwhile one of my favourite journalists, Annabel Crabb, has a hilarious article comparing Gillard with Queen Elizabeth I.
‘Apart from the red hair and the religious pragmatism and the occasional dubious bloke and the lack of interest in foreign affairs and the resolutely single status (“Beggar-woman and single, far rather than Queen and married,” Elizabeth told courtiers in 1563), Ms Gillard even has her own scorned Mary Queen of Scots lurking in exile, the only difference being that her name, in this instance, is Kevin.’
So I thought I might go back to look at one of the most notorious put-downs of women in positions of power, John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in the Protestant city of Geneva in 1558.
John Knox was one of the leaders of the Scottish Reformation, often seen as a founder of Presbyterianism. His Protestant activities got him booted out of Scotland in 1549 by the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, and then out of England by Mary Tudor in 1554. He later returned to Scotland and was minister at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh until his death in 1572. Knox’s pamphlet argues that the rule of women is unnatural:
‘To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.
In the probation of this proposition, I will not be so curious as to gather whatsoever may amplify, set forth, or decor the same; but I am purposed, even as I have spoken my conscience in most plain and few words, so to stand content with a simple proof of every member, bringing in for my witness God’s ordinance in nature, his plain will revealed in his word, and by the minds of such as be most ancient amongst godly writers.’
He dwells heavily on the evidence of bad women rulers, like Jezebel, while downplaying any evidence of good women rulers, like Deborah, one of the Judges of the ancient Hebrews. His argument is almost entirely drawn from the Bible.
Knox only mentions one contemporary woman, Mary Tudor, but there is no doubt he had others in mind as well – for one of the interesting features of the 16th century is how many women rulers there were around. Most of them were widows, like Mary of Guise in Scotland, or Catherine de Medici in France, regents on behalf of a young child. There were also several women rulers in their own right, including Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots – who risked becoming pawns of the marriage market, their kingdoms subsumed by their husbands, as the heiresses to Brittany and Burgundy had been in the previous century.
Perhaps the most interesting women rulers of the time were the three generations of women, all widows, who ruled the Netherlands as regents for Charles V, his aunt Margaret of Austria (1480-1530), his sister Maria of Habsburg (1505-1558), and his illegitimate daughter by a Flemish mistress, Margaret of Parma (1522-1586).
What each of these women had in common was her Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation was tearing apart the former religious unity of Christendom. In Scotland, England, France and the Netherlands, Protestants were engaged in an ideological (and sometimes actual) battle with Catholics, and these women were attempting to hold the line.
Knox’s argument against the rule of women was doubtless genuinely felt, based on his Biblical reading, but it also suited his political agenda. But his timing was out. His 1558 pamphlet was originally intended to be the first of 3 ‘blasts’, but in November 1558, Mary Tudor died childless, and her half-sister Elizabeth became Queen. Suddenly, there was the first of a monstrous Protestant regiment to consider – and Knox never published any further Blasts. But Elizabeth never forgave him, all the same.
Which brings us back, strangely enough, to Virginia Slims, so named because of the tobacco from the colony of Virginia, which in turn was named after the Virgin Queen. Elizabeth’s success as a ruler came at a price, to take herself out of the marriage market, to avoid subjecting herself to any man.
Have we come a long way, baby?