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Vilification of Women in Power: an Analysis of The Rulership of Catherine The Great and Hatshepsut

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Since the rise of agricultural societies, the idea of women in power has traditionally made people uncomfortable. Even when women are able to obtain high positions and lead their nations to times of growth and prosperity, men seem to fear women in power. As women push forward through different means necessary to navigate male dominated systems and progress to center of power, men push back in order to stamp out what they see as a threat to the patriarchy that has governed the world for centuries. The uneasiness that arises when females rise to power is often coupled with male backlash and defamation of women. By analyzing and comparing the rulership of Hatshepsut and Catherine the Great, we can both understand the methodology used to obtain power within a patriarchal system and the subsequent vilification that often follows the ascension of women into positions of power in order to uphold the patriarchy. 

In order to gain power initially both Hatshepsut and Catherine the Great needed to capitalize on different sources of social power. To ascend to the throne Hatshepsut was able to take advantage of ideological power. One of the characteristics of ideological power that makes it so influential, is that it cannot be proven or disproven making it the most powerful of the social powers (Mann 23). Egypt with all of its divine kingships and ideological belief systems chooses to use Hatshepsut to rule as regent and continue divine succession in place of Thutmose III, who was much too young to rule. Hatshepsut was both the offspring of the old family of King Ahmose and the new lineage of King Thutmose which was foundational in her claim to power (Cooney 109). Not only was Hatshepsut the king’s daughter and the sister-wife of Thutmose II which connected her to the divine dynastic cycles, but she was named high priestess during her father’s rule which places her in a position of ideological authority. Hatshepsut saw how influential Egypt’s priesthood was and how holding an ideological base of power would help her lay claim to power. Hatshepsut is able to use her position of priestess of Amun-Re to express her own claim to the gods and state that god wanted her to rule as both regent and king. The reign of Hatshepsut was characterized by her multiple claims to ideological power which is very powerful in the Egyptian political and social structure. 

Similar to Hatshepsut’s establishment of coregency due to her connection to men that held authoritative power, Catherine was able to gain control due to her connection to the male head of state, Karl Ulrich (later Peter III). At an early age, Catherine was chosen to be the marry Peter III but when he ascended to rule, he was seen as incompetent and incapable of rule. Catherine saw an opportunity to eliminate him and govern Russia herself. In contrast to Hatshepsut, Catherine the Great was able to use military power and her charm gain support and ultimately lead a rebellion against her husband and assert her control over the Russian empire. Catherine had the support of the army and enlightened elements of aristocratic society and led regiments that rallied to her cause and proclaimed her empress ultimately resulting in Peter III’s abdication and subsequent assassination (Oldenbourg-Idalie). By first looking at the origins of their claim to power we can see the means through which women have to move in order to push towards the center of power. Once they were given their roles, both Hatshepsut and Catherine the Great had to navigate their respective social systems and use different tools at their disposal to maintain their claim to power. To gain respect, women in power often must both draw from their feminine characteristics while, at the same time, suppress their femininity and sexuality leading to a constant struggle between competing self-portrayals. Women often must take on more masculine characteristics to gain respect in a patriarchal power structure. Hatshepsut chooses to express her status a pharaoh through self-commissioned masculinization. Once she ascended to full kingship, she commissioned representations of her kingship in the southern temple of Buhen where we can observe the shift in expression because the consecutive stages are preserved. The first stage represents her as a female pharaoh. In the second stage, the queen is depicted in female dress with an elongated stride. In the third, the female is portrayed wearing a royal kilt with androgynous anatomy and, lastly, the fourth stage show the queen in a fully masculinized guise with all previously carved figures altered to display more male characteristics. The way in which Hatshepsut gains and maintains power was by slowly deemphasizing the iconographical explicitness of her femininity and inventing an image of herself that was more masculinized. Hatshepsut needed to shape her methodology of rule and representation of herself to match the maturation of Thutmose III. By reinventing herself and taking on attributes of a male pharaoh, Hatshepsut was able to gain power and assert her claim to authority even as Thutmose III grew older and would be able to lay claim to the throne. Women often have to strike a balance ultimately adopting masculine characteristics and forfeiting some of their femininity to gain power and respect. Yet, when women draw from both feminine and masculine characteristics, the public tends to paint female characteristics in a negative light, while painting male characteristics in a positive one making femininity into a disadvantage. 

In contrast to the desexualization of Hatshepsut, Catherine the great was often selectively masculinized while also being criticized for her sexuality. James Harris, First Earl of Malmesbury, clearly indicates this tendency when he states the following of Catherine in his memoir: “Her Majesty has a masculine force of mind, obstinacy in adhering to a plan, and intrepidity in the execution of it; but she wants the more manly virtues of deliberation, forbearance in prosperity and accuracy of judgement, while she possesses in a high degree the weaknesses vulgarly attributed to her sex- love of flattery, and its inseparable companion. Vanity; an inattention to unpleasant but salutary advice; and a propensity to voluptuousness which leads to excesses that would debase a female character in any sphere of life.” In their writings, western authors of the time such authors as De Ligne, Segur, Tannenburg, etc., depicted Catherine through two contradictory lenses: On one hand, certain characteristics of hers were described as manipulative, deceptive, and vain and these appear as female traits, while virtues such as strength and intelligence were masculine (Meehan-Waters). Foreign authors that criticized Catherine’s rule often condemned for her femininity and sexuality. Catherine was often denounced as whimsically swayed by her desires and emotions which were seen as a result of her sex. Chevalier de Corberon remarked that Catherine submitted to her senses and therefore needed a mentor and that her mediocre lovers demonstrated the poor taste and judgment of women. In his eyes and those of many western male critics of Catherine’s rule, Catherine was ruining Russia by lack of morals, extravagance, and in the end would be judged ‘a weak and romantic woman’ whose female vices limited her ability to rule. According to such reasoning, female rule is regularly condemned by the assumed weakness of women and their tendency to fall under the domination of powerful men (Meehan-Waters). In a letter, a French diplomat in Moscow, Baron de Breteuil, both praises her ambition yet faults her for her love affairs and in one line of the gives a chilling warning to “him who puts too much trust in her,” highlighting how men saw women who used their sexuality as dangerous. People saw Catherine’s use of sexual power as both manipulative and a sign of weakness. Any weaknesses in her reign would be seen as failures attributed to the characteristics of her sex. The idea that femininity and power are mutually exclusive is an idea that is widely held within male dominated power structures. 

The reign of Hatshepsut was characterized by her trying to fit the male mold of rulership and justifying her position as the primary head of state, but in doing she became despised by those who saw her power as a subversion of theirs. It wasn’t unusual for a queen to become regent for a juvenile king, but it was unusual for her to become fully a king as Hatshepsut did. No other king of Egypt is known to have had Thutmose’s specific experience, in which a female regent actually became a king and dominated rulership throughout the entire corulership (O’Conner 6). In addition, from the beginning Hatshepsut and Thutmose would have had competing agendas, because Hatshepsut wasn’t his biological mother, so her goal wasn’t to protect his kingship. This unique experience came to define much of Thutmose III reign and probably led to a feeling of injustice and victimization. After Hatshepsut’s death, Thutmose systematically ordered the destruction of Hatshepsut’s monuments in attempts to remove her name and memory from history. O’connor argues that to reinforce the legitimacy of his family line he had to resort to reducing the legitimacy of Hatshepsut by denying her any. He had to align himself with Thutmose I & II rather than having his image reflect the rulership of Hatshepsut. A further indication that Thutmose changed relationship with the long dead Hatshepsut is seen in the shift of his representation in reliefs and statuary. The images of Thutmose III differ stylistically from his earlier representations where he begins to mirror the sculpted faces of Thutmose I and Thutmose II and more significantly begins to eliminate or minimize the earlier representations that mimics representations of Hatshepsut. With this new representation, Thutmose I,II,&III and later his son Amenhotep formed a composite image of an ideal ruler and Hatshepsut no longer had any place in it because she didn’t fit the normalized mold (O’Connor). Thutmose saw Hatshepsut’s unconventional reign as threat because her insertion into the center of Egyptian rulership would potentially destabilize the normalized dynastic cycle of male kingship. When women obtain high stations of power, if they step out of the socially accepted structures within a male dominated system they are often vilified and persecuted. Society seems to inherently find something wrong with female ambition and grasps for power preferring women that fit into socially determined women’s roles. Archeologists noted that in many cases, when it came to Hatshepsut’s attempted removal from history, it was only designations of her as pharaoh that were removed. Other title’s such as “king’s daughter” or “king’s wife” were untouched (Hatshepsut). Pictures of her dressed as a pharaoh were chiseled out while pictures of her as a queen were not. In other places, her name and title were replaced with those of Thutmose III’s son, Amenhotep. The men who attempted to remove her from history were satisfied with depictions of her that fit the roles that women were “allowed” to hold. 

When one looks at Catherine’s use of her sexuality critics frequently accuse her for turning those around her into mere tools of her ambition. Though her sexuality was seen as a weakness, Catherine’s ability to separate her sexuality from her role as empress disturbed many of her contemporaries leading them to attack for her coldness and ability to use and manipulate people (Meehan-Waters). If we compare this accusation to other male rulers, it is rare to find critics that ridicule men for objectifying women or using other men as pawns to get ahead. Men who assert their sexual or political power are often seen as resourceful. The western idea of female purity and modesty is never imposed on men especially when they are in positions of power. Women in power are expected to remain confined to certain roles and usually it is the stepping out of normalized roles that make men uncomfortable. To counteract females attempts to redefine the roles in positions of power, men often resort to denigrating and slandering women in order to reinforce female gender roles and maintain the accepted patriarchal system. After removing their claims to power and deeming them unfit to rule, oftentimes, men ultimately take credit for the accomplishments of female rulers. Catherine led her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe. She championed the arts and reorganized the Russian law code. She also significantly expanded Russian territory. Yet, a secret agent of Louis XV to the court of St. Petersburg, Jean Charles Thibault de Laveaux, claimed that Catherine deluded herself and tried to delude others into believing that she made the controlling decisions. Laveaux dismissed Catherine’s claims to power as vanity and praised men like Potemkin’s, who was one of Catherine’s lovers, for their cleverness in getting around Catherine. Even when Catherine was able to lead Russia through times of great prosperity, some ultimately saw men’s influence over Catherine as a form of domination and that her power was derived from powerful men around her. Similarly, Hatshepsut was so successful that men would eventually take credit for her successes. 

Beneath the guise of masculine superiority are men that are afraid of powerful women and what they mean to the system set in place by a male dominated society. Since men view women holding power poses as a threat, they seek ways to either delegitimize female rule or exclude them all together. When women do begin to progress forward and achieve high positions of power, they are viewed through a hypercritical lens and often have to fit a patriarchal mold in order to maintain power and avoid being seen as incompetent leaders. By looking the ways in which Hatshepsut and Catherine the great were criticized and vilified as they ascended into higher ranks of power, we can further understand the struggle that women in power face of trying to justify their rule amidst a culture that actively questions their authority and strives to push them back out of the center of power.

Works Cited 

  • Cooney, Kara. “Lecture: Week 6,” UCLA. Winter 2019 Cooney, Kara. Mann James Harris Chevalier   

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Vilification Of Women In Power: An Analysis Of The Rulership Of Catherine The Great And Hatshepsut. (2021, November 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/vilification-of-women-in-power-an-analysis-of-the-rulership-of-catherine-the-great-and-hatshepsut/
“Vilification Of Women In Power: An Analysis Of The Rulership Of Catherine The Great And Hatshepsut.” GradesFixer, 22 Nov. 2021, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/vilification-of-women-in-power-an-analysis-of-the-rulership-of-catherine-the-great-and-hatshepsut/
Vilification Of Women In Power: An Analysis Of The Rulership Of Catherine The Great And Hatshepsut. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/vilification-of-women-in-power-an-analysis-of-the-rulership-of-catherine-the-great-and-hatshepsut/> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2021].
Vilification Of Women In Power: An Analysis Of The Rulership Of Catherine The Great And Hatshepsut [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Nov 22 [cited 2021 Dec 8]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/vilification-of-women-in-power-an-analysis-of-the-rulership-of-catherine-the-great-and-hatshepsut/
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