Fall 2019 – Women and Leadership in History


Women and Leadership in History
Presented by Carolyn Harris
Tuesdays, 8 October to 26 November 2019

October 8 Cleopatra and Boudicca: Two Queens who Fought Rome
For centuries, the Roman Empire absorbed surrounding kingdoms, transforming them into client states. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe in Britannia resisted this Roman expansion, determined to maintain their political power and the independence of their kingdoms. Since their resistance ultimately ended with defeat and suicide, these queens have been mythologized as tragic figures. In reality, both women effectively wielded political power for years and gained a broad range of support for their independence activities. They were part of a larger trend toward local resistance to Roman power that included male rulers such as Caradoc of Wales and Vercingetorix of Gaul.

October 15 Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Female Rule in Medieval England
In 1135, William the Conqueror’s son, King Henry I of England, died leaving his daughter Matilda as his only legitimate heir. Matilda was the widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and had practical experience ruling during his absences for military campaigns. However, Matilda was a woman at a time when a king was expected to personally lead his troops into battle and her difficult pregnancy at the time of her father’s death prevented her from travelling to Westminster Abbey to claim her throne. Matilda’s cousin Stephen seized power, prompting a twenty-year civil war in England, a conflict so devastating that the chroniclers of the period wrote, “Christ and His saints slept.” The civil war ended when Stephen agreed to name Matilda’s son, Henry, as his heir. The future Henry II already controlled vast lands in what is now France through his marriage to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Henry’s attempts to assume personal control of Eleanor’s domains destroyed both their marriage and the king’s vast Anglo-French empire.

October 22 The Monstrous Regiment of Women: The Rise of Female Rule in 16th Century Europe
In 1558, Scottish clergyman John Knox wrote, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” Knox was horrified that there were so many women wielding sovereign power in the late sixteenth century. Mary I and Elizabeth I became the first uncontested female rulers of England, Mary, Queen of Scots sat on the Scottish throne, Catherine de Medici served as regent for her sons in France and Margaret of Parma was viceroy of the Netherlands for her brother, King Philip II of Spain. This unique generation of female monarchs who assumed power through dynastic accident, family relationships, marriage and motherhood set precedents that would be applied to future female rulers. Elizabeth I went down in history as “Gloriana,” Mary, Queen of Scots as a “femme fatale” and Catherine de Medici as a “black widow,” but all these queens were complex figures who faced similar challenges to their authority during Europe’s wars of religion.

October 29 Russia’s Age of Empresses: Catherine the Great and Her Predecessors
When Peter the Great died in 1725, few male members of the Romanov dynasty were alive to continue his program of reform and westernization. Instead, the eighteenth century became Russia’s Age of Empresses as four female rulers exerted their own influence on Peter’s legacy. The most famous of these empresses is Peter’s granddaughter-in-law, Catherine the Great, who reformed the law code and created the famous Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg. However, Catherine’s female predecessors also had a significant impact on Russian history. Peter’s widow, Catherine I, sponsored the expeditions of Danish explorer Vitus Bering. Anna, Peter’s niece, prevented the development of a constitutional monarchy in Russia by refusing limits on her rule, and Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth, made Saint Petersburg an architectural and cultural centre, setting the scene for the achievements of Catherine the Great.

November 5 Dowager Empresses and Warrior Queens: Royal Female Rulers in Japan, China and India
In 2005, a succession debate took place in Japan. At the time, Emperor Akihito had only granddaughters and the Japanese parliament debated whether to allow women to succeed to the Chrysanthemum throne, with critics arguing that there had been over a hundred generations of male rule. In fact, eight empresses have reigned in Japan, including one who bequeathed the throne to her daughter, and women were not formally barred from succeeding until the 19th century. There was only one Empress Regnant in Chinese history but the mothers of emperors wielded power behind the scenes. In India, from ancient times until the 19th century, there was a tradition of warrior queens who assumed power as honorary men. Despite myriad barriers to female participation in political life until recently, these women were able to seize and hold power.

November 12 Queen Victoria and the 19th Century Woman
Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901, a period that saw the emergence of widespread popular debate about the role of women in their families and society as a whole. The Queen identified with the values of middle-class English women of the period, presenting her marriage and family as a model of contented domesticity. Victoria shared the predominant worldview of her times, opposing women’s suffrage despite her position as sovereign. At the time, her example had a profound impact on the daily lives of ordinary women. She popularized the white wedding dress, made childbirth anesthesia socially acceptable and helped create the modern idea of the family vacation and the family Christmas. Her daughters and granddaughters supported greater education and vocational opportunities for women. The cultural influence of Queen Victoria and her family continues to shape the lives of women around the world today.

November 19 The Stateswoman: Perceptions of Female Leadership in the 20th and 21st Centuries
In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected prime minister of Sri Lanka, the first female head of government elected to office in the modern world. Since this groundbreaking election, women have been elected as presidents and prime ministers all around the world, ushering in a new era in female leadership. Although stateswomen are now accepted figures in politics everywhere, coverage of female leadership continues to employ the language applied to ruling queens in past centuries. Bandaranaike was described as “the weeping widow,” like dowager queens of the past. The United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher was “the Iron Lady” in the tradition of warrior queens and Golda Meir was described as the “mother” of Israel. The reputations of historical queens remain relevant to the experiences of female political leaders today.

November 26 Creative Women: Female Architects in the 21st Century
Until very recently, the profession of architecture in the Western world was completely dominated by men. Architectural historian Marta O’Brien will introduce some of the profession’s most influential, creative and successful women architects. In 2004, Zaha Hadid, whose buildings seem to defy gravity, became the first woman to win the most important prize in architecture. Chicago’s Jeanne Gang specializes in innovative residential towers and teaches at Harvard. Based in Ireland, Róisín Heneghan’s firm has won many international competitions, including for the new Great Museum of Egypt. Toronto’s own Brigitte Shim is respected internationally for her unique designs, and has taught around the world. We will see how these women are overcoming the challenges and biases that still exist.