I’m no expert in the writing of Joan Wallach Scott, but since having heard about one of her theories I have been caught on the further implications of her idea: introducing The Fantasy Echo.
If you were asked to name two influential women in History, I’d predict Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria to appear; women among the longest reigning Monarchs, with eras to their name, and seen by many as two of England’s greatest rulers. Undoubtedly, they are incredible figures in the History of England, the United Kingdom, and perhaps even globally due to their roles in Empire and Colonialism. They are, however, also incredibly limited in our minds, constrained by two distinct tropes which we subconsciously impose on females when we judge their success: the Mother and the Orator.
Women in History (and today) are typically forced into two sides of a dichotomy, with the Madonna/ Virgin-Whore dichotomy being a common reduction placed on women. The Fantasy Echo however explores the two definitions ‘successful’ women in History are conveniently able to be placed in. Women such as Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale are celebrated due to their fulfilment of the biological and societal ‘functions’ of a women, the role of maternalism. In contrast we laud figures such as Elizabeth I, or perhaps Margaret Thatcher, for defying the limitations (which I hasten to add are only imagined limitations, placed on them by popular beliefs) of their femininity, acting ‘like a man’, otherwise known as strong, bold, and unrestrained.
It doesn’t take a Doctor (of History) to tell you that this isn’t a healthy way to analyse the contribution of women in History. By subconsciously placing women within these two easily differentiated personas we are making their success recognisable, ignoring the naivety of this oversimplification. These conceptions we assume, that Elizabeth was successful for overcoming having the “body but of a weak and feeble woman” by holding “the heart and stomach of a king” for example- aka, acting like a man, the Orator- mean that even before looking into, analysing, and judging these women, we have already come to a conclusion. Our views are set before we personally have even started forming them, as these set tropes are so ingrained in how we judge women.
I don’t believe anyone acts consciously in this; this Echo is written into history since these women have existed, and much of it indeed stems from the contemporary images they created. Elizabeth was the last living Tudor, facing claims of illegitimacy from Catholic European Monarchies (stemming from the Pope’s refusal to annul Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s marriage, rendering her a bastard and thus unable to take the throne), and ruling over a country marred by religious division, with the very real threat of a Catholic overthrow in the shape of her cousin Mary. As such her position was beyond tenuous, and required a behaviour which attempted to disprove the assumptions exemplified by Pope Sixtus V, surprised as although “she is only a woman, … yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the [Holy Roman] Empire, by all”.
This required continuosly distancing herself from her femininity and instead making favourable comparisons with men:
“Though I be a woman yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had”
“Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind”
The famous Armada speech quoted above has led to an assumption that Elizabeth’s success arises from her rising above her inferior position is society as a woman, turning her back on her sex in order to embrace the strength of position that a male Monarch may hold. Indeed, many of her actions were a way to stand strong as a Queen in her own right amongst the Kings of Europe lusting for the throne of England. But her success did not come from being masculine in presentation. In fact, arguably the far greater success was in her manipulation of the assumptions of her sex. Were she to marry, unlike for later queens such as Victoria, the husband would be able to assume the Crown Matrimonial , thus taking Elizabeth’s position as ruler of England, unacceptable if they were foreign to England and divisive among English nobility if they were from her court.
Additionally, she was more than aware of the dangers of royal marriage, seen all throughout her childhood. As such, she refused to be limited by the constraints which marriage would place on her, but neither did she reject marriage in its entirety. Until far into her fourties, Elizabeth played the suitors of Europe, from English nobility to foreign heirs, remaining single and leading them on as and when it was beneficial, whilst simultaneously refuting proposals, declaring explicitly in January 1563 that she “would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married”.
Her use of marital prospects in securing her status was not a rejection of her sex but an embrace of it, seen also in her assertions of being “already bound unto a husband … the Kingdom of England”. The British Library states how “From the early 1580s [her 50s, and thus the end of her marital prospects as she would no longer be able to bear children] she began to be represented as a perpetual Virgin Queen”, wanting her epitaph to read “A Virgin pure untill [sic] her Death”. Indeed, as much as her image may have been a presentation of masculine strength, it was also an assertion of her own ‘fairer’ sex, perpetuating purity unto and motherhood over her subjects, in a way that a bachelor King never would be able.
Victoria on the other hand was a Queen engrossed in love for her husband and domineering over her children, yet simultaneously engaged in a debate within herself, described by Professor Jane Ridley as a tension between destiny as a woman and as a Queen. Paintings such as the one below helped to create Victoria’s, and Albert’s, intended image for the Monarchy, creating an ideal family, and thus presenting Victoria not only as a perfect mother to her children, but through her role as a Queen, presenting her as mother to the nation.
Victoria was not simply Mater of England, but was locked in a “power struggle” with Albert, who she was passionately in love with, but who was also her supposed domestic superior, and utilised this expectation to act as her moral controller, deciding whether her behaviour improved at the end of each month as she was made to record her losses of temper daily in a book.
By encouraging her internal conflict of whether she could remain dutiful to her country and the 19th Century head of the family (the Father naturally), Albert was placing Victoria in a position of both moral and political dependency on her husband. Increasing his own power over ruling was furthered by Victoria’s many pregnancies and children, forcing her to take a step back from her Monarchical duties. This along with the tailored image being created is what has given us the idea of Victoria as a maternal figure first and foremost, when in fact, Victoria was highly resentful of the “little frogs” that were her newborn children; according to Ridley, perhaps given that she was aware of the restrictive barrier they placed on her position.
That is not to say that the Victoria was a failure as a Monarch or ought not be regarded as a successful woman: Victoria was arguably more successful for balancing these conflicting responsibilities, expectations, and further still countless people attempting to manipulate her. Victoria was a Queen and Empress, took an enormous role in the ruling of the country, and defied the expectations of those who watched an 18 year old standing at 4ft 11 ascend the throne. The image of the Royal Family was developed purposefully by the couple to create a moral precedent, and a dynasty that would be able to (and did) spread. Ultimately she was able to finally combine her duelling conflicts of Maternity and Monarchy as “Grandmother to Europe” in her 60s, demonstrating her ability to be more than a Mater, but be a ruler too.
Forcing women into these two tropes is limiting and also untrue. Women are not simply one of two Echoes, the women who raised you, or simply a woman parading as a man, and by forcing them consciously or subconsciously into these images before even beginning to objectively analyse them, we rob both them and ourselves of the true extent of their failures and successes.
Being aware of these assumptions in history might just lead you to take notice of them in women today, political figures or those that you know personally; they are always more than either a Mother or Orator.